Sleep and mental health

Getting a great night, sleep is really important for all aspects of your life, including your mental health.

People who don’t sleep well tend to be at higher risk of depression and anxiety. Also, if you are depressed or anxious, your sleep is likely to get worse. This creates a vicious cycle of poor sleep, low mood and increased stress or anxiety.

A new incidence of poor sleep can be an indication that something is not quite right in your life, and be a nudge that you should look at what is the cause of your poor sleep. It could be a job stress, a health worry, or a warning that you’re not prioritising self-care.

How much sleep is the right amount?

  • 0–3 months     14–17 hours
  • 4–12 months   12–16 hours
  • 1–2 years        11–14 hours
  • 3–5 years        10–13 hours
  • 6–12 years      9–12 hours
  • 13–18 years    8–10 hours
  • 18–64 years    7–9 hours
  • 65 years+        7–8 hours

How does mental health affect sleep?

Anxiety spelled out in Scrabble tiles

Anxiety and stress

If you are anxious, then your body will produce adrenaline and cortisol (your stress, hormones), which keep you alert and ready to respond to danger. Also, you may find that your heart is racing, and your breathing is faster and more shallow than normal. However, these are the exact opposite of the calm, relax feelings we need to fall asleep easily. If you do manage to fall asleep, you may have lighter sleep and external noises will wake you up more easily than if you were relaxed. This can lead to your sleep being more fragmented with you tossing and turning more during the night.

When we are anxious or stressed (such as worrying about money, work, our health or relationships), our mind is often working in overdrive. Busy thoughts running through your mind can make it hard to switch off and fall asleep.

Also, if we are facing a particularly stressful time in our lives, we may avoid going to bed on time because we are trying to get everything done. We may feel that we simply do not have enough time to sleep due to other commitments.

Depression and sadness

If our mood is very low, we may want to sleep more to avoid dealing with life. This can lead to staying in bed much longer than normal or sleeping during the day. All of these things can lead to difficulty sleeping at night if we have got more of our sleep earlier in the day through naps or lie-ins.

When we are depressed, we may also have very negative dreams, meaning that we wake up anxious or panicked from a nightmare. This can make sleep fragmented, and we might struggle to go back to sleep again after such a bad dream.

If you are feeling low, you may not want to go out and see friends or be able to go out to work. If we don’t get outside every day, then we don’t get the bright light exposure that so important for our sleep. Also, if you are feeling very down and tired you may lack the motivation to do any exercise. Becoming less physically active means you won’t be as tired which can make sleep even more difficult. Reduced physical activity and social isolation make sleep worse, which then makes your mood even worse.

If we are feeling depressed then we may not do regular household chores, such as washing your bedding regularly or tidying your bedroom, leading to your bedroom being a negative place. We sleep much better when our bedroom is a sanctuary for a sleep, and it’s a pleasant welcoming place to be. Freshly cleaned bedding, a supportive mattress, and a tidy room, help us to feel relaxed in our bedroom which aids sleep.

7 top tips for improving your sleep when you are anxious or depressed
  1. Slow, deep breathing (such as 4-7-8 breathing) can help reduce physical anxiety helping you fall asleep
  2. Distraction techniques (such as counting backwards in 7s from 1000), can help to distract your busy mind in bed
  3. A 15 minute “worry time” earlier in the day, time can help to clear a busy mind at night
  4. Do some regular exercise as it will help your mental health, physical health and sleep
  5. Have a regular sleep schedule (same time you go to bed and same time to wake up) 7 days per week
  6. Make sure your bedroom is comfortable and a pleasant place to be
  7. Speak to your GP if you are really struggling with your mood as talking therapies or medication may help

Dr Lindsay Browning is the resident sleep expert for And So To Bed, and sees private clients at her sleep clinic Trouble Sleeping. She is also author of the self-help sleep book, Navigating Sleeplessness.

Posted by Dr Lindsay Browning
4th May 2023

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