Sleep plays a vital part in good health and wellbeing throughout all our lives. Getting enough quality sleep at the right times can help to protect our mental and physical health, quality of life and overall safety. According to the National Sleep Foundation, for a person’s overall health and wellbeing, school-age children (6-13 years) need approximately 9 to 11 hours sleep per night, teens (14-17 years) need approximately 8 to 10, and adults (18-64 years) need approximately 7 to 9 hours. Are you allowing yourself enough time to rest and repair your mind and body?
There is a close relationship between mental health and sleep. Many people who experience mental ill health also experience disturbed sleep patterns or insomnia. Furthermore, over a long period of time, disturbed sleep can actually lead to a mental health condition or make an existing mental illness worse. With lack of sleep, you may experience:
- Lowered self-esteem through inability to cope
- Social isolation
- Difficulty dealing with everyday life
- Low mood
- Low energy levels
- Depression and/or anxiety
- Inability to carry out usual social activities
- Feelings of loneliness
Most importantly, being constantly tired can affect our ability to rationalise anxieties and banish irrational thoughts. It could feed into negative thinking patterns which are often associated with anxiety and other mental health issues. This can also work the other way around, with anxiety and over-thinking leading to restlessness at night that can make sleep so much harder to achieve.
Sleep and anxiety
The night-time hours can be especially daunting for anyone with an anxiety disorder. There can be a vulnerability associated with sleeping: a dread of the terrors that sleep may leave them more open to, as well as the fear that slumber will undermine the resolve and single-minded focus that they cultivate during their waking hours.
The sufferer may therefore fight against sleep, facing the next day exhausted and even more vulnerable to the dark and irrational thoughts that fuel the illness. So, the continuous cycle of physical exhaustion and mental distortion, serves as a huge hurdle to sustained recovery.
Quality versus quantity
While some experts recommend that an adult should have between 7 and 9 hours of sleep a night, as quoted above, others say that the quality of sleep is far more important than the quantity. For example, if you have 6 hours of high-quality, uninterrupted sleep you will receive more benefit than having 8 hours of restless, interrupted sleep. In the case of anyone with a mental illness, it is important to be aware that their mind may be so active and full, the sleep they get may not always be ‘quality sleep’.
Yet quality sleep is vital. Sleep is not just time out from our busy routines; everyone needs sleep to help both their mind and body recover from the stresses of everyday life. Sleep is a healing process, one I cannot champion enough, especially for those suffering from anxiety disorders and, indeed, any other mental illnesses.
Sleep has played a vital part in my daughter, Samantha’s, recovery from an eating disorder and OCD, as she says:
“Although sometimes I found it hard to get to sleep as my head was full up and could not think straight, I would listen to relaxation music which would help me to drown out the thoughts, making it easier to get to sleep. I found that having slept I would wake up feeling more refreshed. Sometimes if I was able, I would have a nap during the day which I found really helped me to think more clearly too. Without sleep I did not have the energy and headspace to cope with and move past the thoughts. Sleep has had a major part in my recovery.”
Establishing a positive sleep pattern
Samantha’s experience makes so much logical sense, but sleep is often a forgotten ingredient in the recovery process from a mental illness. Like many people in the general population, those with anxiety disorders easily fall into poor bedtime routines, checking social media late at night or watching TV as the hours tick by, forming habits that undermine good mental health and lead to physical and mental exhaustion in its place.
Getting a good night’s sleep is paramount for sufferers and their carers alike. There are things that we can all do to help us achieve this:
- If possible, get into a routine of going to sleep and waking up at the same time, although this is not always realistic, I know.
- Develop a pre-bed routine, which may include having a bath, or reading or listening to relaxation music, getting the mind into a relaxed state; this should help you to drift off more easily.
- Do not allow tablets, smart phones, television or electronic games in the bedroom. Some people experience disturbed sleep due to the use of technology in the bedroom and blue light from many devices can enhance wakefulness. Going to bed and then spending time on these devices can stimulate the brain, making it more likely to wake up in the night and then have trouble getting back to sleep, due to feeling the need to check for messages, social media etc.
- Make sure the bedroom is dark, as quiet as possible, and the temperature is comfortably cool (but not cold).
- Alcohol and caffeine can also disturb sleep, as does rich food eaten late at night, so avoid these.
Rebuilding the energy we need
The benefits of adopting regular and positive sleep habits can be huge for our wellbeing. Having the energy to do things that we love, to connect with others and build a meaningful life away from any illness – mental or physical – are the cornerstones of recovery. However, these foundations are so much harder to build if we are exhausted.
Having seen and experienced first-hand how regular, good-quality sleep has benefited Samantha, giving her the energy and strength she needed to be able to challenge and overcome the negative thoughts in her head, I cannot reiterate enough the power and importance of sleep.