It’s the most frustrating of vicious cycles: stress or anxiety leaves you struggling to nod off; then missing out on quality sleep causes you to feel even worse. With Mental Health Awareness Day 2020 upon us, here’s why sleep is so important to your state of mind… and what you can do to find sweet dreams.
The relationship between sleep and mental health has never been clearer. Research has shown there are strong links between sleep deprivation and conditions such as anxiety, depression and even suicidal thoughts.
The big problem for those of us feeling locked in our own heads is that the worse the mental issues get, the poorer the quality of sleep. If you’ve ever found yourself awake at night with your mind racing a hundred miles an hour, it can feel like there’s no hope of escape. It’s a challenge that millions of people around the world face and, if you can relate to these concerns, you aren’t alone.
This challenge isn’t helped by technology of course. With our phones constantly pinging and a Netflix boxset luring us into spending more hours in front of a screen, it becomes harder and harder for us to switch off at night, both literally and psychologically. In fact, it’s estimated that we now achieve 90 minutes less sleep a night than we did in the first half of the 20th century – a worrying 10.5 hours per week of valuable sleep lost.
So, what happens in that 10 plus hours a week that we are missing out on?
At night, many of our most important chemical processes take place. It is while we sleep that our hormone levels change in line with our natural body clock – known as the circadian rhythm. Among the most important of these hormone changes is that of cortisol.
Cortisol is a stimulating stress hormone in the body. Closely aligned with adrenalin, it is an important hormone in helping us to feel alert and ready for fight or flight in the presence of a stressor or a threat. At night, an important part of getting to sleep is the natural reduction in cortisol levels as we ease down, relax and prepare for rest.
However, problems can arise when cortisol levels don’t reduce at night – perhaps due to a particularly stressful day, anxiety about a fast-approaching event or simply being too active and awake too close to bedtime. Carry high cortisol levels into the bedroom and it can make it extremely tough to get to sleep.
Not only that but the ramped up cortisol levels mean that other important hormones and chemicals can’t then be released – in particular, the sleep hormone, melatonin. Hence the vicious cycle that develops.
You wake the next day feeling fatigued, foggy minded and not in the least bit rested. If the chronic, prolonged stress continues, cortisol levels remain high and those calming hormones needed to induce sleep are inhibited. This is why chronic stress and associated problems like anxiety are so hard to break.
Not only that but many of the knock-on effects of high cortisol levels can make us feel physically and mentally worse. Over a prolonged period of time, cortisol spikes can increase blood pressure, cause weight gain (as appetite is stimulated and the body elects to store fat more aggressively in its stressed state), weaken the immune system and initiate digestive issues. All of these problems only serve to heighten mood problems and worsen sleep quality.
Feeling stressed, anxious or depressed? Focus on improving your sleep
We all know that mental health issues can’t be fixed in a day, and neither can poor sleep patterns. Putting the right strategies in place for improving the sleep environment and routine, however, can help you to chip away at the problem. Begin to get your sleep under control and many of those other issues can begin to reduce, too.
There are many top tips for sleep that you’ll no doubt have seen before. But the truth is that getting these simple things right can make a genuine difference if you are patient. Trust the process and try to implement the following:
- Cut out caffeine and alcohol for several hours before bed
- Avoid exercising within 3 hours of bedtime
- Cut out screen time 90 minutes before bed and try to reduce all lights in the home during this period
- Try to incorporate a calming activity into your pre-bed routine: read a book, practice breathing exercises or try meditation
- Keep the bedroom environment clean, cool and clutter free at all times
This Mental Health Awareness Day the message really should be that sleep simply isn’t something any of us can afford to deprive ourselves of. Making a half-hearted attempt can be a recipe for disaster and may lead to any mental health problems getting worse. You might not be able to take control of the stresses and strains in your work or personal life easily, but you can always take your sleep routine in hand.
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