A renowned therapist once offered a simple yet profound piece of advice to clients struggling with anxiety or depression: prioritise quality sleep. This astute recommendation came from the therapist’s combined wisdom and expertise. Scientific studies confirm that sleep has a profound effect on the brain, which in turn affects mental wellbeing. By committing to a week of consistent, restorative sleep, individuals can experience a reset that facilitates healing and promotes a more positive outlook on life. This is particularly important for teenagers and young adults.
Sleep Gives Your Brain and Body Time to Heal
Extensive research shows that healthy sleep is the single most influential factor in predicting longevity, surpassing even exercise, diet and genetics. Virtually every bodily system is affected by the quality and quantity of sleep, and the brain is particularly susceptible. During sleep, neurons in the brain have the opportunity to rest and repair themselves.
Without this essential rest, neurons become depleted and impaired by regular cellular activity, leading to dysfunction. Sleep promotes increased protein production, which is essential for growth and repairing damage caused by stress and other factors. Sleep and napping also plays a key role in maintaining emotional and social well-being.
But Most People Don’t Get Enough Sleep
In our increasingly fast-paced world, many people are willingly sacrificing the recommended seven to nine hours of sleep to keep up with demanding lifestyles. In a 2014 survey, a staggering 42% of Americans admitted to getting less than seven hours of sleep on an average night. Globally, less than half of survey respondents reported getting a consistently good night’s sleep.
It is important to note that prolonged sleep deprivation accumulates as a ‘sleep debt’, which the body eventually demands to be repaid. Contrary to popular belief, the body does not adapt to inadequate sleep, but learns to function with impaired judgement, slower reaction times and a clouded mind. The best way to repay this sleep debt is through consistent, adequate nightly sleep and strategic napping.
The dangers of sleep deprivation
Sleep deprivation takes its toll on anxiety levels. Research shows that severe sleep deprivation increases anxiety, depression and overall distress compared to people who get enough rest. In addition, sleep-deprived individuals experience heightened anxiety during tasks and perceive a greater likelihood of catastrophic outcomes than when they are well rested.
The duration of nightly sleep also plays an important role in coping with anxiety and stress. Inadequate sleep acts as a chronic stressor, impairing brain function and overloading the body’s systems. This overload leads to memory impairment, cognitive fog, confusion and depression, making it difficult to cope with stress effectively. Sleep deprivation disrupts hormonal balance and increases anxiety levels. Insufficient sleep further increases adrenaline levels, exacerbating existing anxiety problems.
Sleep disorders are common in people with depression. Insomnia is common in people with depression, with people often waking up in the early hours of the morning and having difficulty going back to sleep. Sleep quantity also affects symptoms associated with mental disorders, as disrupted sleep can cause agitation and hyperactivity in people with bipolar disorder. Severe sleep deprivation can even lead to a state similar to psychosis, characterised by paranoia and hallucinations.
Recognising sleep deprivation
Recognising the signs of sleep deprivation is easy once you know what to look for. Thirst, hunger, mental fogginess, forgetfulness and increased aggression are all signs of possible sleep deprivation. Feeling drowsy while driving or drowsy during everyday activities are telltale signs. Falling asleep within five minutes of lying down is also a sign of severe sleep deprivation..
How much sleep you need
The National Sleep Foundation provides age-specific recommendations for adequate sleep duration:
- Newborns: 14-17 hours
- 1-2 year olds: 11-14 hours
- 3-5 year olds: 10-13 hours
- 6-13 years old: 9-11 hours
- 14-17 years old: 8-10 hours
- 18-64 years old: 7-9 hours
- 65+ years: 7-8 hours
Find your optimal bedtime
Now that you understand the importance of healthy sleep to your mental wellbeing, why not embark on a journey to regular, adequate sleep? Finding your ideal bedtime is an important first step towards achieving a sense of peace and improved health. The benefits of a good night’s sleep come largely from establishing a consistent routine that allows for seven to nine hours of sleep each night. To help you find your optimal bedtime, consider these four tips:
1. Establish your sleep schedule
Identify an ideal wake-up time that allows for a healthy 7-9 hours of sleep. Subtract 8 hours from this wake-up time to determine your lights-out bedtime. For example, if you need to get up at 6:00 am to be ready for work by 7:00 am, your recommended bedtime would be 10:00 pm.
2. Set a bedtime alarm
Use an alarm clock or your mobile phone to signal when it is time to go to bed. Set the alarm at least 30-40 minutes before your desired bedtime to allow for your bedtime routine and transition to sleep. Before you go to bed, remember to reset your alarm for the next morning’s wake-up time.
3. Wake up naturally before your alarm
Aim to wake up naturally before your morning alarm goes off. If, after three consecutive days of following your new optimal bedtime, you consistently wake about 10 minutes before your alarm goes off, you may have found your ideal bedtime.
4. Adjust your bedtime gradually
Finding the perfect bedtime may require some experimentation. If you still rely on your morning alarm to wake you up, try moving your bedtime alarm earlier by 15 minutes every three days. Continue this adjustment until you wake up naturally just before your set morning alarm. Once your body starts to wake up spontaneously before your set wake-up time, you can be confident that you have found your ideal bedtime.
Paving the way to restful sleep
Does anxiety affect your ability to fall asleep? Establishing a healthy sleep schedule for adequate quantity and practicing good sleep hygiene for optimal quality can go a long way. Here are nine additional tips to help you do both:
1. Keep a consistent sleep schedule
Try to go to bed and wake up at the same time every day, including weekends. Avoid sleeping in as this can disrupt your sleep cycle and make waking up in the morning more difficult.
2. Exercise earlier in the day
Aim for 20 to 30 minutes of exercise each day to help you sleep better. However, avoid intense exercise just before bedtime and try to finish your workout at least five to six hours before.
3. Time your meals
Stick to regular meal times and avoid long periods without eating to prevent nervous system activation, which can interfere with sleep. Eat dinner three hours before bedtime. If low blood sugar is a problem, a small tryptophan-rich bedtime snack such as nuts, eggs, chicken, cottage cheese or turkey may help.
4. Minimise caffeine, drugs, cigarettes and alcohol
Avoid caffeinated drinks, drugs such as diet pills and decongestants as they stimulate the brain and disrupt sleep. Stop drinking caffeine by 2.30pm every day. Alcohol and heavy smoking can interfere with restorative REM sleep, so limit your alcohol intake to one glass a night.
5. Establish a relaxing bedtime routine
Establish a consistent, calming bedtime routine. Engage in activities such as closing the door, taking a warm bath, drinking herbal tea, or any other relaxing practice that helps you unwind. Over time, your mind will associate these activities with sleep, making the routine more effective.
6. Create a sleep-friendly environment
Create a quiet sleep sanctuary by removing stimulating electronics such as televisions, phones and stereos from your bedroom. Choose a dark room to promote the production of melatonin, the hormone that regulates the sleep-wake cycle. Make sure you have a comfortable bed and a fresh, pleasant scent, as studies suggest that these contribute to deeper, more rejuvenating sleep.
7. Avoid lying awake in bed
If you can’t sleep, don’t stay in bed. Engage in alternative activities such as reading, listening to music or meditating until sleepiness returns. Shifting your focus away from worrying about sleep deprivation can help you fall asleep.
8. Maintain an optimal room temperature
Control the temperature of your bedroom and dress accordingly, as extreme heat or cold can disrupt the onset and duration of sleep. During REM sleep, our ability to regulate body temperature decreases, so abnormal temperatures can disrupt this restorative stage of sleep. Disturbances during REM sleep can affect subsequent sleep cycles, interfering with the body’s recovery and repair processes.
9. Wake up with natural light
If possible, let sunlight wake you up or use an alarm clock with a bright light function. Exposure to natural or artificial light helps reset your body’s biological clock, which is essential for maintaining a healthy sleep-wake cycle. Insufficient light can lead to sleep disturbances.
The power of self-care: Sleep as a gift to yourself
The quantity and quality of your sleep is under your control. How much are you willing to prioritise your own wellbeing? Will you settle for just enough sleep to stumble through life, or will you wholeheartedly give yourself the full amount you need to navigate with serene purpose? Pay close attention to your sleep patterns.
If you consistently have trouble falling asleep or experience persistent daytime sleepiness, you may have a sleep disorder. Seek advice from your GP or a sleep specialist who can provide the support you need. Whatever the circumstances, making a long-term commitment to healthy sleep habits can go a long way to reducing anxiety.
You may be wondering why, after a good night’s sleep, your doctor would advise you to make your bed every morning. It is a tangible reminder of how healthy sleep empowers us to perform simple acts of kindness that can transform our day and, ultimately, our lives.
So why not treat yourself to a big act of kindness? Embrace the transformative power of sleep!
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