Sleep your way to better mental health

Monday, 26 March 2018

Everyone knows that sleep is important. But what happens to our mental health without it?

Sleep and mental health

Sleep plays a large role in our mental wellbeing and daily functioning. However inadequate sleep is quite common, affecting 33-45% of Australian adults.

When it comes to the workplace, the Australian Sleep Foundation found that in the space of three months 1 in 6 adults reported making errors at work because of sleepiness or sleep problems.

Restless sleep

There are times when gaining a good night’s sleep can be difficult. Many things can contribute to sleeplessness, such as:

  • increased responsibilities
  • experiencing a period of change
  • going through life’s ups and downs.

Even ‘good sleepers’ have difficulty sleeping from time to time, leaving them feeling tired and run down the next day.  Thankfully restful sleep tends to return once periods of hardship are over.

Consistently restless sleep can be a symptom of a mental health diagnosis (e.g., depression and anxiety), or a side-effect of some medications. Recent research suggests that addressing these sleep problems head-on can have a positive impact on both mental and physical health.

If you are experiencing difficulty gaining good quality sleep, a good starting point is to see your doctor and discuss the issue with them. This will help to identify any physical causes of poor sleep and explore a strategy for addressing sleep.

Improving sleep habits for mental wellbeing

Having a look at our behaviours related to a lack of sleep may be the key to improving our sleep quality.

1. Stick to a regular bedtime and wake time

It can be tempting to sleep in on weekends, but ‘catch-up’ sleep can interfere with your ability to get to sleep at your regular time the next evening. Help your body to develop a sleep routine by going to bed and waking up at the same time as often as possible.

2. Limit caffeine intake in the hours leading up to bed

Caffeine can be found in coffee, tea, colas, and chocolates.  Caffeine has a half-life of 4-6 hours, meaning its stimulating properties last for some time.  If you are experiencing difficulty with getting to sleep, it could be worth limiting your caffeine intake, particularly later in the day.

3. Exercise regularly

Regular exercise helps us sleep better, and it’s great for general physical and mental health.  However, make sure you are not exercising too late in the evening- any exercise less than 4 hours before bed is not recommended.

4. Avoid alcohol

Alcohol can reduce our sleep quality. Follow the recommended alcohol consumption guidelines and try to avoid alcohol 4-6 hours before bed.

5. Avoid daytime naps

The longer we are awake, the more ‘sleep pressure’ we build up.  Napping can reduce sleep pressure, resulting in difficulty falling asleep at bedtime.  Whenever possible, it is best to avoid naps.  If naps are required (e.g., for safety), try to limit the nap to 30 minutes and keep to before 3 pm.

6. Create a sleep ritual

Engaging in a relaxing ritual before bed each night can help signal to your body that bedtime is approaching. Examples include:

  • Switch off digital devices for at least 30 minutes before bed
  • Read a book
  • Do some gentle stretching
  • Tidy your sleep space
  • Meditate

7. Develop strategies for managing worrying thoughts

It is normal to have times of added stress or worry. However, bedtime is not the best time to deal with those worries.  It helps to make a time in your day to address important issues. Try writing a list of things you are hoping to achieve the next day. Help clear your mind at bedtime by putting your to-do list down on paper.

If you are experiencing difficulty managing pressures or hardship, consider accessing some support from a trusted person like a family member, friend, counsellor, community support worker, or GP.