by: Cheryl Conklin
Few things are more frustrating than staring at the ceiling above your bed, especially when, mere moments before, you couldn’t keep your eyes open. We all have lingering phases of sadness, stress, or anxiety that keep us up at night, and the lack of sleep makes the emotional distress worse. However, what if sleep is not the result of your situation, but rather the cause?
Chronic sleep issues — the kind that happen frequently, not just once in a while — are common for more than half of people in therapy or receiving psychological services. In fact, some studies show that sleep problems can actually increase the chance you could develop specific mental health conditions such as depression, anxiety, attention deficit disorder (ADD) and even some personality disorders like bipolar disorder.
If this sounds like new information to you, don’t be surprised. There is still so much stigma associated with mental health issues in the United States that we often shy away from talking about it in compassionate ways. However, when it comes to healthy sleep, we have to keep the conversation open. If left unaddressed, sleep disorders can be dangerous, particularly to our mental health. Here are the major questions we should be asking, along with answers that can lead us to find some life-changing solutions.
There are five stages of sleep, which occur in 90-minute cycles. Let’s start by taking a look at what healthy, natural sleep looks like:
● Stage 1: Light sleep with slight muscle activity (roughly 5 minutes).
● Stage 2: Breathing and heart rate slows (roughly 50 minutes).
● Stage 3: Deep sleep begins (roughly 5 minutes).
● Stage 4: Very deep sleep where the brain produces delta waves (roughly 15 minutes).
● Stage 5: REM sleep where dreaming happens. Heart rate increases, but breathing continues to slow (roughly 15 minutes).
When this cycle is disrupted, your mental health suffers. You may wake up for many reasons, from an interruption in breathing to physical pain or discomfort. It’s pretty common to not even know you are waking up or that your sleep cycle is being disrupted. This is why having a good mattress to sleep on can actually impact your mental health. When your sleep cycle is repeatedly interrupted, your body may struggle with fatigue, while your mind could struggle with anxiety, paranoia, depression, and even hallucinations.
If your mattress is more than eight years old, consider getting a new one, especially if you get really hot or experience back or joint pain while sleeping, or if you sleep on your side or stomach. Ensuring your mattress will support a 90-minute sleep cycle is important because sleep is the downtime our muscles need to recover and our blood vessels need to repair and heal. The neurons in our brain get really chatty with one another when we sleep and help our brain shed toxins that get built up while we are awake. While we can think of a lot of reasons our bodies need sleep, there are even more reasons our hearts and minds need it, too.
Studies have shown that a lack of sleep can impact our ability to make decisions and manage emotions. Whether or not you have been diagnosed with a mental health condition, we all sometimes struggle to manage stress, grief, heartache, fear, and anxiety. If you aren’t getting a good night’s sleep, you likely aren’t having very good days, either.
For example, you feel frustrated being unable to follow the agenda in an important meeting. Or, you start zoning out when your child wants to play. These are all signs that a lack of sleep is limiting your ability to navigate the diversity of emotions you feel throughout the day. If poor sleep becomes more frequent and substantial, you can start to experience serious long-term cognitive processing and mental health issues. For example, manic episodes can become more intense and last longer, or the abyss of depression can feel harder and harder to shake off. Be sure you talk about your sleep concerns with a doctor, nurse, or other healthcare providers. Don’t assume you should resolve these issues on your own, but understand that making a few lifestyle changes could have a substantial impact as well.
When it comes to being in charge of your own sleep, you can take some steps to settle in and sink into a deeper, longer experience.
● Start a relaxing bedtime yoga routine. Start out with some gentle stretching, especially in areas of tension and tightness like the shoulders, neck, hips, and hamstrings. Hold these stretches a little longer, letting your exhale take you deeper. When you’ve finished, lie on your mat in a restorative pose and focus on slowing your breath and letting go of any ruminative thoughts and feelings.
● Eat a balanced diet of fruits, vegetables, and whole foods, while avoiding processed foods. You might try keeping a food journal to document what you eat and when you eat it, then keep a sleep journal to log the amount and quality of sleep you get. You might start noticing some connections between food and sleep. For example, you might see that when you eat a lot of dairy, you’re tossing and turning at night more than usual. Or, you might realize that you have trouble falling asleep on days where you’ve eaten sugar or caffeine within a few hours of going to bed.
● Create a space that relaxes your mind and body. How would you describe your bedroom? An oasis of serenity and calm or a home office? A quiet place for meditation or a place to catch up on your favorite shows? We all multitask, so it is only natural that many of our rooms multitask as well — but the bedroom shouldn’t be one of them. You can transform your bedroom into the stuff dreams are made of by hanging light-reducing, blackout curtains; removing televisions, computers, and other electronics; installing a white noise machine; purchasing soft, comfortable, allergen-free bedding; and pointing lights away from the bed and toward the ceiling.
If you’ve been struggling with difficulty sleeping, you may feel frustrated at the lack of relief. You might not feel like yourself, giving a less-than-sparking performing at work and in life. Many people shrug it off, accepting their sleepless fate as just a part of life. But your sleep matters — your mental health matters. Understanding what good sleep is can help you make lifestyle changes that bring peace of mind and a well-deserved long night’s rest.