Sleep difficulties might not, at first glance, seem like a mental health problem, but poor sleep can have a significant impact on your mood, memory and mental agility. Sleep disturbances are also very common for people with mental health conditions - complaints such as insomnia or nightmares have even been incorporated in some anxiety disorder definitions, such as generalized anxiety disorder and posttraumatic stress disorder. Getting enough ‘good quality’ sleep is a vital element to your health – our body undertakes several key processes whilst we are asleep that helps our mental resilience – so not getting enough sleep can really exacerbate mental health conditions.
Research1 indicates that more than a third of adults are not getting enough sleep, and those suffering with mental or physical health problems are even more likely to suffer. Here we discuss five simple things recommended2 to improve your sleep:
It might sound obvious, but for many busy adults, scheduling a routine bedtime can be a real challenge. It is all too easy to allow weeknights to get shorter and shorter and compensate at the weekends, but research shows that our brains prefer to have a regular sleep and wake cycle, which some researchers have called the ‘circadian pacemaker’. Try to set a routine that is realistic for your lifestyle and do your best to stick to it for a few weeks – you might find it makes all the difference.
Many people find that caffeine before bedtime can interfere with their sleep, but there may be other stimulants that have crept into your evenings that you are unaware of. For example, sugary foods and drinks such as ice cream and hot chocolate can keep you awake at night. More recent research has found that electronic screens such as mobiles, laptops, and televisions can stimulate the brain, particularly highly emotive programmes and games. If possible, try to have at least an hour before bed where you can wind down – take a bath, read a book, listen to gentle music, or meditate for example.
Research has shown that as little as 10 minutes of exercise per day can drastically improve your sleep, so the message here really is little and often. See if you are able to add more walking into your day-to-day routine, perhaps by getting off the bus a stop earlier, or substituting a large weekly shop for several smaller ones if you have a supermarket nearby. If you can swim, run or cycle then so much the better, but even gentle exercise such as yoga can have hugely beneficial effects. However, be careful to avoid heavy exercise late in the evening, as this has been shown to delay sleep – sometime in the afternoon is best.
For many people, the bedroom is an under-used space that easily doubles up as an office, television room or social area. Whilst this may be convenient, it can confuse the brain into thinking the bedroom is for working, or playing, or chatting, rather than its primary purpose which is sleeping. Where possible, try to minimise the amount of time you spend doing these activities in the bedroom, and particularly try to avoid doing them in bed. Over time, your brain should automatically come to associate the bedroom with sleeping, which will make it all the easier to fall asleep.
Have a look around your bedroom and see how it makes you feel. Do you feel peaceful, safe, and comfortable? If not, consider how you can make it so. Consider adding ambient lighting to create a tranquil atmosphere, and experiment with soft furnishings such as mattress toppers or throws to make the bed more cosy and inviting. When it comes to sleeping well, comfort really is key. Remember, going to bed should be well-deserved treat at the end of a long day.
If you have tried all of the above and you are still having a difficulty sleeping, it might be time to consider seeking an expert opinion. Psychological therapists can offer specialist advice tailored to your needs and lifestyle, without the need for medications or herbal supplements. To speak to our knowledgeable triage team about what service might suit you, call 0203 326 9160.
Clinical Partners is the UK’s largest private mental health partnership, helping children, adults, families and organisations nationwide.
1 Michael H. Bonnet, Donna L. Arand; We are Chronically Sleep Deprived, Sleep, Volume 18, Issue 10, 1995, Pages 908–911, https://doi.org/10.1093/sleep/18.10.908
2 Edward J Stepanski, James K Wyatt; Use of sleep hygiene in the treatment of insomnia, Sleep Medicine Reviews, Volume 7, Issue 3, 2003, Pages 215-225, https://doi.org/10.1053/smrv.2001.0246