Sleep and mental health

Life constantly throws up challenges and difficulties. Resilience is the ability to manage and cope with these. It is believed that having enough sleep is an important factor in our ability to deal with adversity and the demands of a busy life. Sleep in many respects is a built in biological source of resilience and the ability to bounce back.  Although the relationship between sleep and mental health is not clearly understood, we believe that a good night's sleep helps foster both mental and emotional resilience. Chronic sleep disruptions set the stage for negative thinking, depression, anxiety and emotional vulnerability.

During the day, we are bombarded with new information. Sleep gives the brain some ‘down time’ to process all of this information and store it in our memory banks. This way, it is available and accessible when it is needed. Having enough sleep improves concentration, creativity and assists with learning.

An extreme example of a difficult and stressful situation is being in a Prisoner of War camp. In a study that followed repatriated prisoners of war for 37 years, sleep was the strongest predictor of mental resilience. Whatever is happening during sleep for traumatised people, it appears to assist with the recovery from these stressful experiences. Whilst thankfully few people will have had the experiences of a POW, all of us experience the ups and downs of life and would benefit from accessing quality sleep in times of stress.

Poor sleep and depression are very closely linked; treating one condition will often improve the other. Given that research suggests that 60-90% of patients with depression have insomnia (and approximately 20% of people with depression have sleep apnoea), looking after our sleep to promote good mental health seems imperative.  The Harvard Mental Health Newsletter states that “Once viewed only as symptoms, sleep problems may actually contribute to psychiatric disorders”. People who sleep poorly are much more likely to develop significant mental illness, including depression and anxiety, than those who sleep well.

There are many simple ways to improve sleep. The first step for many people is to improve their sleep habits. A regular bedtime and waking time are essential, as are avoiding stimulants before going to bed (cigarettes and caffeine), having enough exercise during the day (not too close to bedtime), eating well and ensuring that the bedroom is quiet and dark and the bed is comfortable. Removing all electronic screens from the bedroom is difficult for some people, but mobile phones, computers and televisions in the bedroom are a major cause of sleep disruption. Some people may need to seek the assistance of a sleep psychologist and very occasionally the short term use of medication may be helpful.

Auger R (quoted) -

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Cathryn Curtin, Psychologist.