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Sleep: Why It Matters to Mental Health

Sleep is one of the most fundamental things in life. We spend around a third of our lives asleep, and it is absolutely vital for good physical health. When we sleep, our bodies have time to repair, grow and heal, and it allows our brains to process the vast amount of information we encounter during the day. Without sleep, brain function is impaired – we can’t concentrate, process memories or think clearly.

Sleep may be necessary for the brain to physically function, but what about mental health? How does sleep, or a lack of it, impact how we feel?

Have you ever felt a bit teary after a bad night’s sleep? Or more irritable? Or conversely, felt motivated and raring to go after a really good sleep? Most of us have felt something akin to this at some point in our lives, and this is because sleep plays an influential role in our emotional state and general wellbeing. Research shows that sleep not only affects our ability to regulate emotions, but emotions can affect how we sleep. Emotional events during the day can impact how we sleep, and the amount and quality of our sleep influences the way we react to these events.[1]

Problems can begin when this becomes a negative cycle. Not having enough sleep makes us more sensitive to stressful events and less able to manage our emotions. This can spiral into worry, anxiety and stress which makes it harder to sleep, which can be a very difficult cycle to break. The added irony is that mental health challenges can make it difficult to sleep well, and poor sleep can exacerbate mental health problems, so it can become a vicious cycle.

Sustained poor sleep can make you more likely to feel anxious, depressed or suicidal, it can increase the chance of psychotic episodes, make you feel irritable and reduce your ability to concentrate and make decisions. It can also make you feel lonely or isolated if you don’t have the energy to see people, and can impact other areas of your life, such as relationships, work or physical health.

What does poor sleep look like? It varies between individuals, but it commonly includes finding it hard to fall asleep or stay asleep, disturbed sleep (such as panic attacks, flashbacks or nightmares), not being able to wake up in the morning, or feeling tired or sleeping a lot during the day.

Given that 1 in 5 people in the UK report not getting the 7-9 hours of sleep that we typically need to be healthy, it’s important to know what we can do to try and improve it. There are some relatively simple things you can try in order to get better sleep:

  • Try to stick to a routine. Your body likes predictability, and it can help to go to bed at the same time every night and wake up at the same time every morning

  • Be relaxed and comfortable. If you can, make your bedroom a comforting place that suits you (think about light levels, temperature, noise and bedding). A relaxation routine before bed can help too, whether that’s a bath, meditation or reading

  • Keep a sleep diary. It can help to track your sleep (such as times, hours asleep, how many times you woke and quality of sleep) as well as factors that might affect it, like alcohol consumption, medication, stress or physical activity. A sleep diary will be very useful if you ever require treatment for sleep issues

  • Be aware of devices. Try to limit how much time you spend on devices just before trying to sleep, and think about changing the lighting settings into dark mode to help your body prepare for sleep

  • Look after yourself. Improvements to diet, physical activity and time spent in nature can all positively impact on the sleep we get.

However, some sleep issues go beyond the above advice. If you are worried that you are having problems sleeping, or have experienced sleep issues for a sustained period of time, speak to your GP in the first instance, who will be able to offer support and treatment. Treatment options may include talking therapies, medication or referral to a sleep clinic.

Looking at the impact of sleep shows just how interconnected everything is, and how a change in one part of your life can affect another area. If sleep is causing you stress, take a look at the bigger picture to see if there’s something you could change that might give you #sweetdreams.

Photo by David Clode on Unsplash

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