Sleep is the unsung hero of mental health
Posted by Samantha Lawson
Written by Chris O'Sullivan, from the Mental Health Foundation.
We spend about a third of our lives asleep. Sleep is essential - It is as important to our bodies as eating, drinking and breathing, and is vital for maintaining good mental and physical health.
If you’ve ever gone without sleep or had too little sleep for a long period of time, then you will know what a big difference it can make to your life, including how you feel emotionally. Around six in 10 people say their sleep suffers when they are stressed, according to a 2018 survey of more than 4,000 UK adults by YouGov for the Mental Health Foundation.
Nationally, many millions of people struggle with their sleep. Around four in 10 of us are not getting enough, while one in five sleep badly most nights, according to the Royal Society for Public Health.
Mental Health Foundation research suggests that sleeping well is one of the single best things people can do to look after their emotional wellbeing: sleep is the unsung hero of mental health.
How well we sleep can influence our mental health and our mental health can influence how well we sleep.
Most people will know from experience that at times when we’re struggling emotionally, our sleep is one of the first things that suffer. Feeling very stressed, anxious, or down can make it harder to get to sleep and stay asleep, for example. The sleep-mental health picture is complex. But the bottom line is this: sleeping well is essential to our good mental (and physical) health.
There are lots of reasons why we don’t sleep well. We can have busy schedules, we may be worried and anxious, caring for young children or adults, looking at our phones for too long, doing shift work, or living in noisy neighbourhoods. Perhaps you’ve tried to follow sleep hygiene advice. Maybe you are aware of the impact sleep has on your mood, or perhaps you struggle with sleep and don’t know why.
The Foundation wants to start a national conversation about sleep. We started that before lockdown and had planned to focus on sleep for Mental Health Awareness Week. We changed the theme to Kindness given the challenges we faced as a nation – but we will be coming back to sleep.
We want to highlight how the circumstances in which millions of us find ourselves are preventing us from getting a good night’s sleep and, hence, from thriving. Those circumstances have been exacerbated and uncovered by lockdown, and the pandemic, and our ongoing research programme on the mental health impacts of the pandemic, and our public content on coping during the pandemic highlights the importance of sleep.
We use the acronym HEAL to help you consider how you could improve your sleep:
We know that poor health affects sleep and vice versa. Mental health problems like depression and anxiety often go hand-in-hand with sleep problems.
It’s important to get any health concerns addressed, both for helping physical symptoms and for addressing any worries that might keep you awake. This is doubly important now when we might feel its not worth troubling the GP for a new or existing issue that doesn’t seem urgent.
At the moment, worries about the pandemic and it’s impact on life are causing most of us stress, and sleepless nights. Temporary insomnia is a normal response to stress. If you can, try not to bring worries to bed.
Where you sleep is important, and the bedroom and bed should be places you mainly associated with sleep. In particular watching TV, playing with phones or screens or eating in bed can all affect the quality of our sleep.
At the moment when we are working from home it may be that your bedroom is also your office. For short periods this may be OK, but in the longer term it can have an impact on work creeping into the bedroom at night. If you need to work in your bedroom, try and remove all traces of work at the end of the working day as part of a wind down routine. Put papers and equipment away or cover monitors etc.
Temperature, noise levels and light all play a part in determining our sleep. If you find yourself experiencing poor sleep, try keeping a sleep diary to see if there are patterns which can help identify a problem.
It’s easiest to get to sleep when we are able to relax and let go of concerns. We’ve all had a night where we lie awake and worry. In the time before we go to bed, we should try and wind down, be less stimulated and relax.
These days this can be harder than ever but relaxation techniques, a warm bath or mindfulness practice can all help. Routines have become very important for protecting our wellbeing during the pandemic and sleep and wind down routines can make a huge difference.
If you find you can’t get to sleep, it is always best to give yourself a break, get up, perhaps make a warm milky drink and then try again when you feel sleepier. It can be tempting to look at the TV or your phone screen but this may stimulate you and make it harder to nod off.
Stimulants like caffeine can make it harder to sleep, and a heavy or sugary meal close to bedtime can make sleep uncomfortable. Alcohol might seem to help you get to sleep but it reduces the quality of sleep later.
Moving, getting out into the sun especially in green or blue spaces, and taking exercise during the day can help to aid sleep but intense exercise also releases adrenaline, so exercising during the evening may be less helpful.
We’re proud to partner with the Mental Health Foundation in the UK, whose vision is for a world with good mental health for all.
Over 2020/2021 we aim to raise money to specifically support the Mental Health Foundation Peer Education Project and 5,000 children in the UK which aims to equip children to understand, protect and sustain their mental health.