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The Connection Between Sleep and Mental Health: Tips for Restorative Rest

Written byDesiree Smith

Your mental health affects every aspect of your day — from personal interactions to physical activities. But what if we told you that as your day comes to a close and the lights go out, your mental health also affects your ability to sleep?

Even if you’ve felt mentally healthy for most of your life, you’ve probably noticed your mental well-being falters a little when your sleep patterns become inconsistent. The fascinating thing is that as much as your mental health affects your sleep, your sleep affects your mental health.

So, how do we overcome this cycle to promote a healthy body and mind? Let’s start by taking a look at how sleep works.

The Way Sleep Works

Sleep is a pivotal part of how our bodies function. Our bodies consume energy throughout the day, and sleep helps us recover and go into each day feeling refreshed. We use less energy at night, so our cells can resupply and stock up for the next day. When our bodies are less active, it’s easier for them to heal and repair any issues that arise when we are awake. There’s a reason we want to sleep more when we’re feeling sick!

Our circadian rhythms control the timing of sleep. They synchronize with environmental cues, such as light and temperature, but can even continue without those cues. Our sleep-wake homeostasis keeps track of our need for sleep and is impacted by our medical conditions, medications, stress, sleep environment, and diet.

As a result, your sleep quality is directly impacted by your ability to complete the full sleep cycle, which includes the following stages:

Stage 1 non-REM (rapid eye movement) sleep is when you transition from being awake to being asleep. This period lasts several minutes and consists of relatively light sleep. Your heartbeat, breathing, and eye movements slow, and your muscles start to relax. Additionally, your brain waves begin to slow down after the day's activities.

Stage 2 non-REM sleep is the light sleep before you enter a deeper sleep. Your heartbeat and breathing continue to slow, and your muscles relax even further. Your body temperature lowers and eye movements stop. Brain activity slows and has brief bursts of electrical activity. You spend the most time in Stage 2 of the sleep cycle.

Stage 3 non-REM sleep is the deep sleep you need to feel refreshed in the morning. It occurs in long periods during the first half of the night. During this stage, your brain waves become even slower, making it difficult to wake up. No wonder you feel disoriented and sluggish when rousted from a sound sleep!

REM sleep occurs 90 minutes after falling asleep when your eyes move rapidly from side to side behind your eyelids. Your brain activity consists of mixed frequencies and resembles the patterns seen when you’re awake. Your breathing is fast and irregular, and your heart rate and blood pressure increase. Most dreaming occurs during REM sleep, but some can occur in non-REM sleep. Most people's arms and legs become temporarily paralyzed to prevent acting out while dreaming.

It’s recommended that adults get at least seven hours of sleep each night. If you get less than that, you may experience slowed reflexes, trouble thinking or concentrating, mood swings, a decreased immune system, and fatigue. So, for all the benefits that come with getting adequate sleep, there are clear consequences for not getting enough of it.

How Sleep Affects Your Mental Health

Poor sleep is both a cause and a consequence of poor mental health. The connection between sleep and mental health can be an unhealthy cycle — with inadequate sleep causing poor mental health, further hindering your ability to get quality sleep. Sufficient sleep facilitates the brain’s processing of emotional information. During REM sleep, the brain evaluates and remembers thoughts and memories. A lack of sleep is especially harmful to the consolidation of positive emotional content and can influence mental health disorders and their severity.

Worry and fear create a sense of hyperarousal, which is a major contributor to insomnia. The ensuing sleep problems may be an added source of stress, leading to anticipatory anxiety at bedtime that makes it even more difficult to fall asleep. Without the proper tools, this self-reinforcing cycle can be extremely discouraging.

People who have PTSD often replay negative events in their minds, suffer from nightmares, and have a heightened state of alert, which can harm their quality of sleep. Those suffering from bipolar disorder may experience different sleeping patterns depending on their emotional state. For those with ADHD, falling asleep and staying alert throughout the day can be a struggle. There’s evidence of a bidirectional relationship between sleep and ADHD, with sleep being a consequence of ADHD and a cause of reduced attention span and behavior problems.

While medication is a viable option for those suffering from poor mental health, it shouldn’t be your go-to solution for treating sleep problems. One of the biggest concerns with regularly using sleep medications is the risk of dependency. Your body may become accustomed to the medication, making it difficult to fall asleep without it. Some people may start to require higher doses to achieve the desired effect, which can lead to potentially dangerous situations. Ultimately, while sleep medications may help you fall asleep faster, they don’t improve the quality of your sleep and can even disrupt your normal sleep cycles.

Alternatively, Integrated Psychotherapy can help treat both poor mental health and unhealthy sleep patterns. While its full effect is subject to ongoing research, Integrated Psychotherapy has been shown to help patients reframe their thinking, which can improve both their sleep and mental state. Cognitive-behavioral therapy is one of the most well-established forms of Integrated Psychotherapy. It focuses on identifying and modifying negative thought patterns and behaviors that can contribute to insomnia, anxiety, and depression. Addressing the root causes can help you develop healthier mental habits and coping mechanisms, leading to improved sleep quality.

Tips for Better Sleep

While quality sleep isn’t an automatic cure for poor mental health, not getting enough sleep certainly doesn’t help. Here are a few practices we recommend to start getting the sleep your body needs and deserves.

1) Set a sleep schedule.

A consistent sleep schedule means waking up and going to sleep at the same time every day. This will regulate your internal clock and make it easier to fall asleep and wake up naturally. Having a bedtime routine will help train your brain that sleep is coming. Try to get at least seven hours of sleep each night but no more than eight.

2) Watch what you eat and drink.

You should never go to bed hungry or stuffed. If you need to eat something before going to sleep, try a light, balanced snack. Be aware of your nicotine, caffeine, and alcohol consumption, as these substances can negatively affect your body’s ability to fall asleep.

3) Create a restful environment.

Make your bedroom a place of rest. Keep your room cool, dark, and quiet. Avoid light-emitting screens (i.e., phones, tablets, TV, etc.) right before you go to sleep, as blue light can interfere with your body’s production of melatonin, a hormone that regulates sleep. Engage in calming activities to prepare your mind and body for sleep.

4) Limit naps.

Short power naps can be refreshing, but long daytime naps can cause more harm than good. As a general rule, don’t nap for longer than an hour; otherwise, your nighttime sleep may be disrupted.

5) Be physically active during the day.

Regular physical activity can promote sleep, but you shouldn’t do it too close to bedtime. Vigorous exercise right before you go to bed can be stimulating and make it harder to fall asleep.

6.) Manage your worries.

Unresolved worry or stress can keep you awake late into the night. Try to resolve any worries or concerns before you go to bed, even if that means writing them down and setting them aside for later. Stress management practices, such as meditation or reading a calming book, can help reduce stress and calm your mind for sleep

Maintaining your well-being should be a priority, and a big part of that is ensuring you get enough sleep. A healthy sleep pattern can do wonders for your overall health. Whether you’re struggling to get enough sleep because your mental health is getting in the way or your mental health is causing a lack of sleep, we’re here to help. Our therapists are here to talk and get you on your way to a healthier, happier — and more restful — you.

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