This Mental Health Awareness Month, we’re going on a journey to explore a few ways we can all become more aware of and improve our mental health. Join us on our blog, on social at @findmywellbeing, or in our newsletter. We have discussed how exercise improves your mental health, and learned simple exercises to reduce anxiety from our therapists. This week, our therapists weigh in on ways we can all get more sleep.
Sometimes, it feels like day and night are blending together. Some of us have been working from home for over eighteen months now. With the short commute from bed to kitchen table/desk to couch and back again, it has become increasingly difficult to keep track of time.
And that timelessness is really starting to have an impact on our sleep.
“I had rarely had trouble sleeping before the past few weeks, but now. . .” one of my coworkers said in our Hangouts meeting this morning. The concept resonated with me beyond belief. I’m the person who slept through a fire alarm when I was a kid. I have always had more trouble not sleeping than sleeping, but now. . .
When day and night blend together and when so many of us are experiencing heightened anxiety and other emotions and feelings, it can be difficult to get enough sleep. Whether you have just started having trouble sleeping, you have had trouble falling asleep for years, or you feel like you’re sleeping too much, we hear you and we’re here for you. We turned to our community of therapists and our friends at ettitude, a sustainable bedding company (they aren’t sponsoring this piece; we’re just fans), to understand the impact of sleep on mental health and how we can all sleep better.
“Getting enough high-quality sleep is the number one thing we can do to improve our overall health,” Jenny Maenpaa, a therapist and MyWellbeing community member, explains. “The brain works in overdrive while we sleep, attempting to make sense of everything that took place during the day and reflecting on our experiences. Many researchers believe that dreams are an attempt by the brain to categorize and process experiences, emotions, and memories into something more coherent.”
“Sleep also allows us to move less important information from the conscious to unconscious parts of our brain, freeing up more space for processing.” She continued. “When we don’t sleep well, we lose out on the restorative aspects of sleep, which decreases our ability to solve problems, make sense of things, and learn well the following day.”
If you have ever noticed that you also feel more prone to negative thoughts or feelings when you haven’t gotten enough sleep, you are definitely not alone. “Sleep directly affects mental health,” Jana Dufort, a New York City therapist and fitness expert, notes. “When you are tired, your days are more difficult and can make you lean towards negative energy and negative thoughts.”
“Quality sleep is a great mood booster,” says Phoebe Yu, the founder and CEO of ettitude. “One study showed that when you have insomnia, you are five times more likely to develop depression and your odds of anxiety or panic disorders are even greater. In this uncertain and challenging time, everyone should try to get more sleep to help them reset after a bad day and be better prepared to meet challenges."
The relationship between sleep and mental health is complicated. Some mental health conditions, including depression and anxiety, can cause or exacerbate insomnia. However, research has begun to suggest that lack of sleep can also exacerbate mental health conditions in turn.
Ironically, worrying about sleep can make it harder to sleep. “When we start worrying about the sleep loss itself, our emotional and physical health takes a hit,” says Emily Fitton, a therapist who specializes in cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia (CBT-I). “We know that awful feeling – trying to function in a fog of exhaustion, we get desperate and will try anything for a good night’s sleep. That’s what sends us into the downward spiral of chronic insomnia.”
If you’re feeling stressed about getting enough sleep, we hear you and we’re here for you. Let’s start building a toolkit to get more sleep, together.
Going to bed and waking up at the same time each day can help you sleep better.
“The most effective way to ensure you get enough sleep, is to go back to the good old days and give yourself a bedtime!” says Jana Dufort. “The tip for bedtime is to start your evening routine an HOUR before your bedtime. This moves your mind and body to a progressively calmer space and will allow you to be sleepy. Practicing and keeping this routine will allow you to feel more rested overall and, therefore, happier!”
The time you wake up is just as important as the time you go to sleep. “Support your circadian rhythm system by getting up at the same time every morning, no matter what,” says Emily Fitton. “The first week may feel tough, but your body will reset within that time.”
Like going to bed and waking up at the same time every day, having a routine you always (or, usually) follow before bed can help train your body and brain to recognize when it is time to go to sleep.
Lucia Garcia-Giurgiu, a mental health practitioner and MyWellbeing community member, has a divine-sounding routine to recommend: “Before going to bed, reflect on three things you are grateful for that happened that day, practice a short mediation, try not to use any electronic devices, and put some lavender essential oil on your pillow.”
“Stop trying to sleep,” says Emily Fitton. “We can’t force sleep; it’s a natural process that needs the right conditions to unfold – kind of like falling in love. Instead of fixating on sleep, focus on creating the conditions that support natural sleep.”
Part of not forcing sleep is going to bed when you are actually tired. “Go to bed when you feel sleepy – that usually means a later bedtime.” Emily continues. “‘Sleepy’ is when it’s an effort to stay awake. Getting into bed when you’re “tired but wired” will only give you more time in bed tossing and turning. That’s one of the many paradoxes of insomnia.”
If you’re in bed but you just can’t fall asleep, it’s okay to get out of bed! When I can’t sleep, I get into that anxiety spiral around not being able to sleep that makes things worse. Getting out of bed and journaling, reading, and even taking a shower have all helped me distract myself enough that I’m able to fall asleep when I go back to bed.
Using a meditation or breathing exercise to fall asleep can help reduce anxiety and make it easier to fall asleep.
“My favorite strategy for getting to sleep is four-square breathing, which is 4 deep belly breaths in, hold for 4 counts, 4 deep exhales, and hold for 4 counts.” says Jenny Maenpaa. “Deep, repetitive breathing allows the heartbeat to slow and the mind to refocus on the world around it, instead of the imaginary disaster scenario it came up with when adrenaline was pumping.”
Getting enough sleep doesn’t begin and end at night.
“Tend to what’s upsetting you during the day,” Emily Fitton advises. “In order to sleep well, we all need to feel calm, contented, and connected. Journal it out, reach out to a trusted friend, or talk to a therapist.”
If you are looking for more tips, ettitude put together a free, 30-day sleep challenge that can help you try new things to improve your sleep.
We hope that the tips above help you get more sleep, even when everything is stressful. Try whatever advice resonates with you.
However, you may use many or all of these techniques and still struggle with getting enough sleep. There is still hope! Talk to your primary care provider or a therapist about other strategies and treatments you can use to get rest.
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