By Sarah Johnson, Community Relations Manager at the Tuck Sleep Foundation
Awareness of mental health issues has reduced the stigma surrounding conditions that plague millions of people. Certain habits and behaviors can improve your mental well-being and reduce or even prevent mental health disorders. Looking after your need for sleep is one of the simplest ways to boost your mental health now and in the future.
The Brain’s Need for Sleep
While you may have an occasional night or two of sleeplessness, on average, you should get between seven to nine hours of sleep. Any less and the brain and body start to change how they function in ways that hurt your mental health.
Within the brain, a small area, called the amygdala, processes emotions and becomes increasingly sensitive and reactive to negative situations and feelings when you’re tired. Normally, the brain’s logic center, located in the prefrontal cortex, helps process these emotions to maintain balance. However, without enough sleep, this part of the brain becomes quiet, weakening its influence over emotional responses. Consequently, you can experience an increase in anger, sadness, irritability, and stress.
Sleep Deprivation and Mental Health
Mental health issues like anxiety and depression are often magnified and exacerbated by a lack of sleep. One study compared the development of depressive symptoms between twins when one twin had gotten adequate sleep and the other was chronically sleep deprived. The study also took note of family histories with a predisposition for mental illness.
Lack of sleep showed a stronger connection to depressive systems than genetics. Twenty-seven percent of participants who got seven to nine hours of sleep reported depressive symptoms in comparison to over 50 percent of those who slept only five hours.
While this particular study focused on depression, the instances of other mental illnesses like anxiety also tend to increase as sleep hours goes down. However, your sleep cycle quickly responds to changes in your personal habits and behaviors, which gives you the power to improve your sleep and protect your mental health.
Give Better Sleep a Chance
You could be sabotaging your sleep cycle without even realizing it. A few small changes could be enough to alter the way you feel and look at your life. But, remember:
- Comfort is more than a luxury: When it comes to sleep, you have to take comfort seriously. Your body temperature needs to drop in order to fall asleep, which means most people need cooler bedroom temperatures, somewhere between 60 to 68 degrees. Disruptions like bright lights and loud noises should also be kept to a minimum. Try to tailor your comfort to your specific needs. Weighted blankets can reduce anxiety, white noise machines can soothe light sleepers, and a table fan can keep hot sleepers cool.
- Make consistency your goal: The body relies on a consistent schedule to properly time the sleep cycle. Set a reasonable bedtime then make efforts to keep it. The more consistent you are, the better able your body will be to adjust and respond to your sleep hormones.
- Reduce stress with a bedtime routine: Stress can be a major sleep disruptor and contributes to poor mental health. A bedtime routine not only helps trigger the brain to start the sleep cycle but also gives you a chance to relieve daily stress and tension. While the bedtime routine can include any activity that leaves you relaxed, meditation and gentle yoga are two activities that specifically target stress. Meditation strengthens the link between the emotion and logic centers of the brain, helping balance emotional responses. Yoga can be used to stretch tension out of muscles and has been shown to reduce inflammation related to stress.
Changes in your sleep-related habits can start today. Thankfully, the benefits of a good night’s rest take effect immediately even though it might take time for a habit to form. Putting sleep at the forefront of your priorities also puts the success of your mental health where it needs to be.