May is Mental Health Month. If you’re looking for ways to improve your mental health, consider starting with sleep. Improving your sleep can bring great benefits when it comes to feeling good.
What is the relationship between sleep and mental health?
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Not getting enough sleep at night will eventually affect your day-to-day mental health.
Many genetic and environmental factors play a role in mental health, and not all are fully understood. But we know that sleep plays a vital role in mental well-being. Sleep and mental health have a bi-directional relationship, meaning they influence each other.
“We know that people with mental health problems have more trouble sleeping; poor sleep also causes (and exacerbates) mental health problems,” says Richard Blackburn, a clinical psychologist in Cambridge, Minnesota, who focuses on sleep.
Sleep problems are listed as symptoms for many psychiatric diagnoses, Blackburn says. The DSM-5, the American Psychiatric Association’s widely used diagnostic tool, lists sleep disturbances as a symptom of depression, anxiety, and bipolar disorder, among other disorders. Chronic insomnia is also associated with an increased risk of suicidal thoughts.
“Everything gets harder when you don’t sleep well,” says Blackburn. He says that sleep is sometimes referred to as an extra vital sign, along with heart rate, breathing, temperature, and blood pressure, because it’s so important to health. In addition to mental health issues, people who routinely get less than six hours of sleep a night are at increased risk of heart attacks, strokes, and metabolic diseases such as diabetes.
But the good news is that sleep problems can be managed. “When sleep goes bad, there’s usually a reason for it, and that reason needs to be investigated,” Blackburn says.
What can I do to improve my sleep and mental health?
Anyone experiencing chronic insomnia or a serious mental illness such as depression should seek medical attention. Insomnia exacerbates mental health problems, in part because people lose their emotional regulation when they don’t sleep, Blackburn says.
Treating insomnia can relieve other symptoms of mental illness. You can start with your primary care physician, who can help you decide whether to see a sleep psychologist or sleep specialist who can conduct a sleep study or other course of treatment, Blackburn suggests. For example, a form of counseling called cognitive behavioral therapy may be effective for improving insomnia, Blackburn says. Likewise, treating physical medical problems such as sleep apnea or hormonal imbalances can improve sleep problems that can negatively impact a person’s mental health.
“The best treatment for coexisting sleep and mood disorders may require collaboration between different providers, the use of medications, treatment of associated sleep disorders, and psychotherapy,” says Dr. Brandon Peters, a sleep physician at Virginia Mason Medical Center in Seattle, Washington. †
That said, for healthy folks just looking for a better night’s sleep, there are some simple steps you can take yourself.
Create a bedtime routine.
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Adding reading to your nighttime routine can improve your sleep.
Doing the same set of relaxing and repetitive activities every night as a bedtime routine can train your brain to get ready for rest. This means putting your work, email, and social media aside and reading or listening to soothing music instead. Set a phone reminder an hour before bed to remind yourself to go to sleep, Peters advises. Use that time to relax and disconnect from your day.
Waking up at the same time every day
A consistent start to your day is just as valuable as a regular bedtime routine for keeping your sleep-wake cycle on track. Blackburn says you should set an alarm at the same time in the morning, no matter what time you went to bed the night before. Your internal clock is set when you get up and get sunlight into your eyes. Snoozing past your alarm clock pushes your body’s clock back, making it harder to fall asleep that night.
“If you sleep in on the weekend, you disrupt your internal clock for several days,” he says. “It’s like getting jet lagged without ever leaving the house.”
Try not to stress in bed.
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By meditating, you can clear your head after those long days.
Sometimes not being able to fall asleep as soon as your head hits the pillow can make you feel anxious because you can’t sleep… a vicious cycle. Blackburn says if you’re in bed and can’t doze for more than 15 to 20 minutes, get up and do something relaxing instead of tossing and turning. If you lie there stressing about not being able to sleep, you will associate your bed with stress rather than comfort and relaxation.
Also, try not to worry about your day or stress about your workload while you are in bed. One option is to listen to a sleep story such as those produced by mediation apps like Headspace. These relaxing bedtime stories for adults are designed to take your mind off the daily anxiety and lull you to sleep. If you don’t want screens, try the Morphée, a screenless meditation device with multiple options for unwinding. But if stress in bed becomes a recurring problem, consider seeking professional help.
Keep your bedroom comfortable.
Your bed and bedroom should be both a physically comfortable and emotionally comfortable space. Keep your bedroom cool, dark, and quiet, Peters says. Sometime in the mid 60, ‘s is generally considered the ideal sleeping temperature.
Try not to bring screens into the room – or at least use phone settings before bed, including not watching TV before falling asleep.
If the light is an issue in your room, consider using blackout curtains to prevent streetlights from keeping you awake or a sleep mask if your partner leaves the light on when you want to nap. If it’s too noisy, try a white noise machine to drown out the ambient noise or earplugs to prevent the neighbor’s barking dog from waking you up, for example.
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