Research on sleep has been widespread and in-depth for many years. When it comes to our well-being, this research has shown time and again that proper amounts of sleep and rest lower a person’s risk of developing mental health problems such as anxiety and depression.
It is therefore with little shock, that I listen to my clients describe their inability to sleep. What does, however, amaze me is their often complete and utter lack of awareness around how their sleep problems are feeding into and worsening their mental health. As is so often the case in psychotherapy, our first task will be to create awareness.
From my experience those who suffer with depression will often find that their sleep pattern is quite erratic. Feelings of despondency and a lack of energy may even be misinterpreted as sleepiness leaving them lying in bed restless at different times of the day and night. Regarding anxiety, the tendency to ruminate and the inability to switch off from one’s preoccupations and thoughts can trap you in cycles of over-thinking. This is similar to those who feel stress due to work.
Once these sleep difficulties are identified and brought into the awareness of the person it is often important to reaffirm why sleep is a vital part of our lives. This will provide the person with the facts that can encourage change.
- Hormone levels are better balanced when you get the right amount of sleep. Poor sleep is related to fluctuations in our hormone levels which are negative and can contribute to mood swings and over eating.
- Correct amounts of sleep improve our immune system which means we are less likely to get sick and therefore be more productive in work and in our private life
- Good quality and quantity of sleep helps with our ability to concentrate and focus. It increases our energy levels and brain functioning. In this sense sleep is vital to work productivity and efficiency
- Lack of sleep can affect our relationships. Poor sleep prevents us from recognising emotions in others which can lead to conflict
- Lack of sleep is one of the biggest risk factors for obesity
- Good sleep facilities our ability to be physically active.
Once we have learned how poor sleep is influencing us and why it is important to sleep well we must look to instigate change. There are many ideas, and these are some which I have found work the best with those I have helped. Routine, routine, routine. We humans are habitual creatures and work best in routine. Getting a pre-bed routine, which emphasises winding-down and relaxing and picking the same time to go to sleep each night gets the body into a natural rhythm.
It may seem obvious but sleep in the dark. I’m sure many people would be amazed by the amount of light pollution they are unaware of. Be it from inadequate curtains or blinds allowing streetlight in or light entering the room from under your doorway, it all disturbs our sleep. Black out blinds can limit the amount of unnatural light which finds its way into your room and activates our bodies to wake.
Social media has allowed us to connect with one another and the world like never before and whilst this is positive there is no doubt that it is highly addictive. It’s always tempting to check out that one last story or play one more video and suddenly we find ourselves awake an hour later wide-eyed and entertained but further from slumber than before. Phone, tablet and computer screens shine an artificial light which suppresses melatonin, our sleep hormone. Confused levels of melatonin mean we get a far less restful night’s sleep. Restricting the use of these devices an hour before bedtime allows the body to release this melatonin.
If you watch TV in bed, chat on the phone in bed or do some work on your laptop there then your body doesn’t associate being in bed with sleep and rest. By right you should solely use your bed for sleep or sex. In this way when you get into bed you associate it with a place in which you wind-down.
Ensuring that you include regular physical activity in your lifestyle is another important element of getting your sleep correct. If your work is based around an office type environment and your day is sedentary then incorporating an exercise routine before or after work can be a good way of tiring the body out as well as keeping you fit and healthy.
My own personal favourite tip is reading. I find a book which is fiction based allows me to switch off and occupies my mind in a relaxing and engaging way thus allowing my body and mind to unwind and gently nod off.
Working through the issues which are creating your sleep disturbance with someone impartial such as a psychotherapist can be a good first step. Therapy can create a better awareness of what is maintaining and exacerbating your sleep issues as well as being a source of support. Keeping a sleep diary and analysing the data gathered is often a good starting point. Counselling and psychotherapy can also direct the mind’s attention on what you can do to help your sleep along with dealing with the underlying issues.