It will come as no surprise that there is a close relationship between sleep and mental health and both can have a negative effect on the other. Poor sleep can impact on your mental health, causing worry and anxiety, which in turn, leads to further poor sleep. This can make you tired and sluggish the following day, making recovery from mental health issues more difficult and treatment less effective.
Because of the link between sleep loss and mental health problems, difficulty sleeping is a key indicator of emerging or undiagnosed conditions and should therefore not be ignored. There are a number of ways in which mental health can affect our sleep:
During the day, we have the opportunity to distract ourselves from the worrying thoughts that may be leading to anxiety. However, when we get into bed and things go quiet, our minds are free to wander. We experience our mind racing and can’t ‘switch off’. We end up worrying about everything, including how we will cope with the effects of sleep loss the following day.
Both depression and Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) can lead to oversleeping. When we are depressed our body will encourage us to withdraw and stay inside; the best way for our body to achieve this is to make us feel exhausted, thereby encouraging excessive sleep. Often those with depression feel tired all of the time and sleep during the day. Conversely, sufferers of depression will often find they wake in the early hours and are unable to go back to sleep, leaving them feeling even more tired during the day.
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder often causes nightmares and vivid flashbacks which can wake sufferers during the night. Consequently, sufferers are often fearful of going to bed and avoid sleeping which can lead to insomnia.
People who suffer from panic disorder may find they are having attacks during the night. They will wake feeling short of breath and sweaty and may need to get out of bed and get some fresh air in order to calm down. This pattern can lead to the bed becoming associated with fear and the experience of the panic attack and in turn, increases the risk of insomnia.
So what can you do?
The first thing to bear in mind is that if you are experiencing sleep loss and can relate to any of the above situations and believe you may be suffering from an undiagnosed condition, you should contact your doctor immediately. If you are receiving treatment for a mental health condition and are finding the effects of sleep loss are impacting on your recovery or that your condition is causing sleep loss, there are things you can do to help get a better night’s sleep.
Clear your mind before bed
In the middle of the night, we find it difficult to be rational. Being awake when it seems the rest of the world is asleep can make us feel very alone; this is a breeding ground for anxiety and depression. Even somebody with no mental health problems can stare at the ceiling in the middle of the night and, understandably, their mind will naturally turn to thoughts of the past and worries about the future – what else is there to do in a darkened room?
To help overcome this, allocate a 20-minute time slot each day and get into the habit of writing down everything which is on your mind and likely to worry you in the night. This can be a therapeutic way of ‘drawing a line’ under these worries before you go to bed.
Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT)
Learning to manage your anxiety or panic during the day can help negate their effects during the night time. CBT and other techniques, such as Mindfulness, can train your brain to recognise and shift away from negative thinking, give you a range of long term skills necessary to improve mood and manage anxiety. There are many websites available as well as books in your local library which will teach you the skills you need to master these techniques. Your GP will also be able to refer you to your local NHS Psychological Service for more information on therapeutic options.
Establish a sleep routine
Keeping a regular sleep routine will help to prepare your body for sleep at night time by synchronising your body clock. According to mental health charity, Mind, in order to establish a sleep routine you should:
- Keep a sleep diary, tracking your sleep times and ensuring you stick to the same sleep times each night;
- Get up at the same time each morning. Set an alarm and make every effort to get out of bed as soon as it goes off, this will help to improve low mood;
- Avoid the temptation to spend lots of time in bed during the day as this can disrupt your sleep pattern by taking the edge off your drive to sleep at nighttime;
- Keep your bedroom for sleeping. If you are lying in bed feeling anxious/sad then leave the room. Read a book downstairs or watch TV for a while until you feel you may be able to sleep and then go back to bed.
Consider medical treatment
If you are suffering from sleep loss, it is important to remember that you are not alone and that support is available. If you are struggling to combat your mental health concerns alone, speak to your GP as they will be able to explain your medical options and may prescribe medicine to help you get back to your old self.
We must not underestimate the importance of a good night’s sleep. Poor sleep can impact our health in ways we may never even have considered, including our mental health. Getting good sleep regularly is a key step to a healthy body and healthy mind.