I once heard a famous therapist say, "When a client comes into my office suffering from anxiety or depression, I tell them, 'Go home and commit to getting eight hours of sleep every night this week. When you wake, make your bed. Then come see me in a week and we'll talk.'" Why did he say that? Well, the doctor happens to be both smart and wise–smart because yes, studies show that sleep affects the brain and the brain directly affects mental health, and wise because getting healthy sleep for a week can act like a reset button that helps you to heal and view your life more positively. This can be especially true for teens and adolescents.

Sleep Gives Your Brain and Body Time to Heal

Healthy sleep has been proven to be the most important factor in predicting longevity, even more influential than exercise, diet, or genetics. Studies have shown that almost every system of the body is affected by the quality and quantity of sleep a person gets, especially the brain. Sleep gives the body's neurons a chance to shut down and repair themselves. Without that opportunity, neurons become so depleted and polluted through normal cellular activities that they begin to malfunction. Sleep provides cells with increased protein production that fuels growth and repairs damage incurred by stress and other factors. It is also integral to maintaining healthy emotional and social functioning.

But Most People Don't Get Enough Sleep

Our world seems to move faster and faster every day. With so much to do, we often sacrifice a healthy seven to nine hours of sleep in an effort to keep up. In a 2014 survey, 42% of Americans said they got less than seven hours of sleep on a typical night. And across the world, less than 50% of survey participants said that they were sleeping well every night. If you have been deprived of sleep for a few days, the amount of sleep you need increases. Sleep deprivation creates a sleep debt that your body will demand to have repaid at some point. Contrary to popular belief, your body doesn't actually adapt to getting inadequate sleep. However, you might get used to functioning with impaired judgment, slower reaction times, and foggy brain. The best way to repay a sleep debt is with consistent, adequate nighttime sleep and strategic napping.

The Effects of Sleep Deprivation

A sleep debt can have serious ramifications on your anxiety levels. One study shows that severe sleep deprivation increases one's state of anxiety, depression, and general distress relative to those who had a normal night of sleep. Another study shows that sleep deprived individuals reported a greater increase in anxiety during tasks and rated the likelihood of potential catastrophes as higher when sleep deprived, relative to when rested.

How much you sleep each night also determines how well you can deal with anxiety and stress. When a person gets too little sleep, the deprivation acts as a chronic stressor that impairs brain functions and contributes to an overload on the body's systems. This overload contributes to memory loss, brain fog, confusion, and depression, making it more difficult for a person to deal with stress. Furthermore, sleep deprivation creates an imbalance in hormone levels that drive anxiety levels higher. Too little sleep also boosts adrenaline levels that can exacerbate existing anxiety issues.

Sleeping problems also occur in almost all people with depression. People suffering from depression often struggle with insomnia, and depressed people often awaken in the early hours of the morning and find themselves unable to fall back to sleep. Additionally, the amount of sleep a person gets influences symptoms stemming from mental disorders: for example, disrupted sleep can trigger agitation and hyperactivity in people with manic depression. Even in otherwise healthy people, extreme sleep deprivation can lead to what seems to be a psychotic state of paranoia and hallucinations.

Are You Sleep Deprived?

Once you know what to look for, sleep deprivation becomes pretty apparent. For instance, if you feel thirsty, hungry, mentally foggy, or forgetful, you could be sleep deprived. The same holds true if you feel aggressive. If you feel sleepy while driving, or drowsy during the day, even during boring activities, you haven't had enough sleep. Furthermore, if you often fall asleep within five minutes of your head hitting the pillow, you are probably suffering from severe sleep deprivation.

This is How Much Sleep You Need

The National Sleep Foundation recommends different amounts of sleep for various age ranges:

  • Newborns: 14-17 hours
  • 1-2 year olds: 11-14 hours
  • 3-5 year olds: 10-13 hours
  • 6-13 year olds: 9-11 hours
  • 14-17 year olds: 8-10 hours
  • 18-64 year olds: 7-9 hours
  • 65+ year olds: 7-8 hours

Find Your Optimal Bedtime

Now that you understand how important healthy sleep is to your mental health, why not start working towards getting appropriate sleep on regular basis? This week, start working to establish your optimal bedtime, the perfect first step towards feeling calmer and becoming healthier. Many of the benefits you will reap from good sleep will stem from establishing the most important part of your new routine–a schedule that provides you with seven to nine hours of sleep every night. Here are four tips to help you find your optimal bedtime:

1. Determine your sleep schedule

Determine an optimal wake up time that allows for a healthy 7-9 hours of sleep, then subtract 8 hours from that time. For example, if you need to wake at 6:00 am to leave for work at 7:00 am, your lights out bedtime would be 10:00 pm.

2. Set bedtime alarm

Let your alarm clock or cell phone to tell you when to go to bed. Set it at least 30-40 minutes before your bedtime to give you time to follow your bedtime routine and to fall asleep. Before you go to bed, remember to reset your alarm for your morning wake up time!

3. Wake before the alarm

Your goal is to wake before your morning alarm. If you find yourself waking before your morning alarm by about 10 minutes after three days of going to bed at your new optimal bedtime, then you've probably found your perfect bedtime!

4. Try earlier bedtimes

You might not be able to find the right bedtime immediately. If you are still relying on your morning alarm to wake, move back your bedtime alarm by 15 minutes every three days, until you begin to wake up just before your morning alarm. When your body begins to wake up naturally before your set wake-up time, then you will know that you have found your perfect bedtime.

How to Get the Sleep You Need

Is your anxiety making it hard to fall asleep? Establishing and committing to a healthy sleep schedule to provide quantity and healthy sleep hygiene to provide quality can really help. Here are nine more tips that can provide both:

1. Set a consistent sleep schedule

Once you have found your optimal bedtime, try your best to go to bed at that set time each night and to get up at the same time each morning, 365 days a year. As tempting as it may be, try not to sleep in on weekends; it will make it harder to wake up early on Monday morning because you will have reset your sleep cycle for a later wake up time.

2. Exercise early in the day

Set aside 20 to 30 minutes each day to exercise. Among other health benefits, it can help you sleep better. That being said, a workout right before bedtime could interfere with sleep. It's best to exercise about five to six hours before bedtime.

3. Schedule meals appropriately

Try to be consistent with your meal times. If you wait too long to eat, you can trigger the nervous system, making it harder to sleep later. Also, try to schedule dinner at a time that leaves three hours between dinner and bedtime. If you have a problem with low blood sugar, you could try a small bedtime snack that is high in tryptophan, such as nuts, eggs, chicken, cottage cheese, or turkey.

4. Avoid caffeine, drugs, cigarettes, and alcohol

Try to avoid caffeinated drinks and drugs, such as diet pills and decongestants, as they can stimulate the brain and cause an inability to sleep. Be sure to stop using caffeine by 2:30pm each day. Alcohol and heavy smoking can rob people of the restorative rapid eye movement (REM) sleep stage as it keeps one in a light sleep. Limit alcohol to one glass per evening.

5. Create a relaxing bedtime routine

Create a consistent, relaxing bedtime routine. Close down the house, unwind, take a warm bath, drink herbal tea, or do whatever feels relaxing to you. In a short time, you can train yourself to associate these relaxing activities with sleep to make them part of a virtuous cycle.

6. Create a sleep sanctuary

It is easier to sleep peacefully in a room that is free of brain and eye-stimulating electronics. Yes, that means removing the TV, telephone, stereo and the like. It is important to have a dark room because it can help boost your body's production of melatonin, a hormone that regulates our sleep and wake cycles. Be sure to have a comfortable bed, and make your room smell fresh and pleasant. Studies show this makes people feel more relaxed. All will contribute to deeper, more restorative sleep.

7. Don't just lie there

If you can't sleep, don't stay in bed. Get up and do something else: read, listen to music, or meditate until you feel tired. The idea is to keep your mind off feeling anxious about your lack of sleep as it can keep you awake.

8. Find a comfortable room temperature

Because very hot or cold temperatures may disrupt sleep or prevent you from falling asleep, control your bedroom's temperature and dress appropriately. People lose some of the ability to regulate their body temperature during REM, so abnormally hot or cold temperatures can disrupt this stage of sleep. If REM sleep is disrupted one night, our bodies don't follow the normal sleep cycle progression the next time we doze off. REM is the restorative stage of sleep so disturbing this period will mean your body misses its opportunity to restore and repair.

9. Wake with the sun

If possible, let the sun wake you or use an alarm clock that activates a bright light. Your body's biological clock resets itself every day using sunlight or artificial light. People who lack exposure to light usually experience sleep disorders.

The Sleep You Get is Equal to the Sleep You Give

Getting enough sleep is up to you. How much are you willing to give yourself? Just enough to allow yourself to stagger through life? Or the full amount you need to walk with calm purpose? Keep track of your sleep habits. If you have trouble sleeping night after night, or if you feel tired day after day, you could have a sleep disorder. Talk to your primary care physician or a sleep specialist to get the support you need. Whatever the case may be, committing to healthy sleep over the long term can help reduce your anxiety.

Now, are you interested to know why the doctor tells his patients to make their bed every morning after a good night's sleep?

It's to demonstrate how healthy sleep makes it easier to give ourselves the little acts of kindness that can change our day and in effect, our lives.

How about giving yourself a BIG act of kindness? Sleep!

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Date of original publication:

Updated: October 29, 2016