Getting enough sleep isn’t always easy. Whether family and work commitments leave you short of time or you simply struggle to drift off when you climb under the covers, you might find it difficult to get the recommended amount of rest.
We all know that a lack of sleep can leave us feeling tired and irritable, but could it also be doing more serious damage to our mental wellbeing? Scientists don’t yet fully understand the effects of sleep on our health, but research has found that disruption to slumber can wreak havoc with our brains, impacting on our emotional regulation and ability to think.
So, as well as helping you to feel energised for the day ahead, a good night’s sleep could play an important role in protecting and improving your mental health. Here, we take a look at three ways that shuteye can enhance your mental wellbeing, and offer tips on how to get a better night’s rest.
1. Reducing your risk of depression
Studies suggest that if you manage to get a good night’s rest on a regular basis, you may be better protected from depression. Research carried out by the University of North Texas found that people suffering from insomnia were nearly 10 times more likely to have clinically significant depression than those who did not have a sleep disorder. An increased number of awakenings during the night was also linked to a greater risk of depression.
As well as potentially making people more prone to depression, a lack of sleep can be a symptom of this mental illness. Often, people who are feeling depressed find it harder to switch off at night and get enough rest, so there’s a danger of getting trapped in a vicious cycle.
2. Making it easier to keep anxiety at bay
There’s evidence to suggest that getting enough sleep could help you to keep anxiety at bay. A study presented at the annual Society for Neuroscience suggested that missing even one night’s rest can result in a pattern of brain activity that looks very similar to anxiety. The researchers examined the impact of a night’s sleep deprivation on people’s brains and compared this to their brain activity after a normal, restful night. They found that when participants were deprived of rest, their anxiety levels rose by 30 per cent the next day, with half of the people reaching the threshold of a clinical anxiety disorder.
Responding to the findings, Eti Ben-Simon from the University of California suggested that a loss of sleep triggers the same mechanisms in the brain that make us sensitive to anxiety. According to the expert, it impacts on the brain regions that support emotional processing and regulation.
3. Helping you to stay calm and collected
We’ve all experienced the impact that a bad night’s sleep can have on our mood. If you find yourself more prone to being short-tempered and stressed, and generally feeling negative when you’re tired, you’re certainly not alone. An Oxford University study of students across the UK found that sleeplessness made people more likely to have negative thoughts.
Another study, this one carried out at the University of Pennsylvania, revealed that subjects who were limited to 4.5 hours of sleep a night for a week reported being more stressed, sad, angry and mentally exhausted than normal. These negative effects on mood were reversed when the subjects resumed their normal sleep patterns. So, getting enough shuteye may help you to stay more calm, collected and positive.
Tips to help you get a good night’s rest
Most adults need an average of around seven to eight hours of sleep a night to function properly, but getting this much rest is often easier said than done. To help you increase the amount of sleep you get, it’s worth bearing the following suggestions in mind.
Try to stick to a routine
If you can, get into the habit of going to bed and getting up at roughly the same time each day, whether you’re working or not. Sticking to a routine in this way will help to programme your body to sleep better.
Unwind before bed
Make an effort to unwind before bed. This means giving yourself some tech-free time away from the bright screens of your mobile, tablet or TV. Calming activities such as taking a warm bath, doing breathing or muscle relaxing exercises, meditating or reading can be good for helping your body and mind to switch off.
Make your room as comfortable as possible
Ensure that your room is set up for a good night’s rest. If you don’t already have them, consider getting blackout curtains or blinds to give you total control over light levels, and make sure your bed is comfortable and the room temperature is just right. Most people sleep best in dark, quiet and cool environments.
Watch what you eat and drink
You’re probably already aware that having caffeine close to bedtime is a big no-no if you want to snooze soundly, but did you know that having a nightcap or two can be bad for your slumber as well? Although alcohol can make it easier to drift off, it also tends to cause more disturbed sleep. Try to avoid large or heavy meals late in the evening as well, as this can also disrupt your rest.
Address causes of stress
It can be impossible to nod off if your mind is racing with worries, so it pays to take steps to address any concerns you have before your head hits the pillow. This could be as simple as making a list of things you need to do the following day. Just getting these points down on paper could help to clear your head and make it easier to sleep.
Don’t force it
Even if you try these techniques, there may still be times when you simply can’t fall asleep. If this happens, don’t put too much pressure on yourself. Instead, try reading for a bit, or perhaps get up to make yourself a warm, caffeine free drink. Only try to sleep again when you start to feel tired.
By taking sleep seriously and making sure you get enough of it, you could help to protect your mental health - and it’s important for your physical wellbeing too. If you regularly find it difficult to get enough shuteye, you might benefit from speaking to your doctor.