One of the most common symptoms of just about every mental health struggle is, you guessed it: sleep. We need it! We crave it! Our body depends on it! So it makes sense that it is the first thing to go when life takes a turn. A little bit of stress can knock us right out of our normal sleep patterns, and it’s all downhill from there.
Maybe you sleep too much. Maybe you sleep too little. Maybe you’ve got broken and disjointed sleep, or even no sleep at all – the dreaded Insomnia! So if tossing and turning, or feeling glued to your mattress has been a struggle for you lately, I’ve got you covered.
As a therapist, I talk about sleep A LOT. It’s one of the first things I ask about during my initial meeting with new clients, and there’s a valid reason for that! Mental health struggles like anxiety, depression, stress or even grief can impact our sleep cycle in major ways. Or vice versa. Not getting enough sleep, or even over-sleeping can have a big effect on your functioning.
Why Is Sleep So Important?
Sleep restores our natural rhythms by giving your body time to focus on healing, regeneration and other important cellular processes. Your body needs all every last bit of your energy to do this lengthy process (pretty much 7-9 hours worth of work!) and it simply cannot do that while you are moving, digesting and expending energy with your daily activities.
It is also the time your brain consolidates memory through dreams, or Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep. You may not be present for it but your brain is busy tidying up all the memories you made during the day, making sense of your thoughts and feelings and observations and storing them appropriately into long term memory . This is essential for having a clutter-free working memory.
If you don’t get enough sleep, you can become weak, fatigued, drowsy, and struggle with memory and problem solving. Your internal nervous system would become frayed. You might find yourself becoming irritable, angry, or anxious. Your body functions would suffer, causing stomach problems, respiratory and heart issues, even motor movement can suffer.
If you sleep too much, you’re often not increasing energy with physical movement, or proper nutrition. Your muscles may begin to weaken without the necessary movements that keep them engaged and functioning at their best. You’ll find your mood low, and lethargic. Your motivation will take a huge nosedive. Sleeping too much can be a major sign of depression and although you may be getting more hours in bed, they won’t be getting the same restful kind of sleep you need – your body needs balance. And it might become a cycle that’s hard to break out of – too much time under the covers means less exercise, less motivation from seeing friends and accomplishing tasks. A body at rest stays at rest! Suddenly, sleep becomes a weight around your neck holding you down.
It’s a no-brainer that having the right amount of sleep is very important! So let’s go over some key rules that may help you break out of any poor sleep habits you may have fallen into, so you can improve your sleep quality! But be patient: I encourage you to try these strategies for a week or more (optimally 2 weeks) before you can expect a major change to occur.
Staying active and moving your body (even for just 30 minutes a day) can actually improve your sleep drastically! And we’ve been saying this for years, so it shouldn’t be news to you. Physical activity, like going for a walk or a jog, biking, or even a sport like soccer and basketball, will directly impact the quality of the sleep you get that evening. You will use up the energy your body has stored, which makes for a nice sleepy feeling at the end of the day. This also starts the ‘supply and demand’ chain. If you use up energy, your body will know and anticipate it needs the same amount, if not more, the next day! So it’s going to use that sleep time to make sure it replenishes that stock for the next morning.
Set a goal to accomplish 30 minutes of body movement every day. This could mean a scheduled routine like going for a run or taking your bike around the neighborhood – or it could be incidental exercise. Take the stairs, throw a frisbee for your dog, or just aim to increase your daily step count a bit each day. Try this consistently for 7 days and see what changes about your energy and your sleep by the end of the week.
Diet and Caffeine
Another no brainer is to be mindful of your diet if you’re trying to improve your sleep. And I’m not talking about watching your calories. Eating on a regular schedule and not snacking too late at night can impact your sleep quality. Going through the pantry late at night for a snack may satisfy the munchies, but it also means your stomach will be busy digesting when you’re ready to catch some Z’s. Salty, spicy or fatty foods too can lead to very troubled rest. Think about your caffeine and sugar intake as well! Coffee, teas, soda and even alcohol will disturb your sleep by either keeping you awake late into the night, or disrupting your body’s natural sleepiness hormones.
Cut out caffeine and sugars after 4PM if you’re really struggling to sleep, and reduce your alcohol intake. Switching to decaf, or just cutting back and trying herbal teas which are naturally decaffeinated may make a major change after 14 days. Stick with eating a healthy dinner, and go light on the spices if you’re sensitive to this. Avoid those late night binge sessions if you can – or opt for a sleep safe type of snack such as yoghurt and banana which boast calcium and potassium, two excellent vitamins that can aid in your sleep journey!
Schedule and Routine
Remember when you were a baby, or maybe you have a little one of your own? Kids have an amazing sleep schedule: dinner, quiet play time, then a soothing bath, favourite pyjamas and a story, and maybe a song to soothe them into sleep. The term ‘sleep like a baby’ is probably describing the amazing routine we use to ease kiddos into resting. But when we become adults, we assume we can just toss ourselves under the covers and sleep will magically happen! Not exactly. Our body really does benefit from lots of behavioural and environmental cues, so preparing ourselves for rest with a predictable routine and schedule can pave the way to some quality snoozes.
Set a reasonable bedtime (and wake time!) for yourself and begin to prepare for bed about 30-40 minutes before hand. Consider having a warm shower or bath, using aromatherapy and develop a calm bedtime routine. A warm bath can actually help your body temperature drop which mimics what happens when you sleep! Turn down the lights, reduce noise, and practice calm activities like reading, slow stretches, or breathing exercise. Doing the same processes every night before bed can begin to impact your sleep in as little as a week as your body can use these as signs to begin to prep you to sleepiness.
One of the worst offenders for affecting sleep quality is screen-time. Using your phone, tablet, laptop and some TVs can really mess up your schedule and actually signal to your body to keep you awake longer. Not only do these sorts of devices sometimes over-stimulate you with information or emotional responses, but the lighting from them, called blue light, can reduce production of Melatonin in your body. Melatonin is the hormone responsible for inducing sleepiness. When the sun goes down, melatonin levels start to rise in your body, making you yawn and feel sleepy. When the sun comes up, it begins to reduce and you start feeling more awake. Blue light from cell phones can mimic the rays of the sun and melatonin production gets halted and then you can say Bye Bye to sleep.
An hour before bed, consider turning off your devices and distractions in order to give yourself time to focus on sleep. Especially don’t look at your phone while in bed! Plug it in for the night on the opposite side of your bedroom, away from you so you’re not tempted. Better yet, keep it in the other room. Try listening to a guided meditation instead, or reading by lamp light if you need something to help you fall asleep.
I remember once working with someone who struggled with poor sleep quality and we spent weeks trying different methods to manage their symptoms, but with no luck. Finally, we realized that every night, their cat would enter the bedroom, meowing repeatedly to be let in and out of the room. Investing in a mask to block out the light and keeping the door cracked for kitty to come and go suddenly solved all the problems! Your environment (and potential noises like cats scratching on the door) can impact your sleep quality a fair bit. A dark, cool room that is quiet, comfortable and private can make a big difference.
Aim to keep your bedroom a little on the cool side, and invest in black-out blinds or a sleep mask if you’re sensitive to light. Many folks need background noise like a fan , or sound machine to block out traffic or other house-mates who may be moving around. Make sure your mattress is comfortable and supportive, and consider testing out different pillows or blankets to find the best set up for you. Even a weighted blanket can make those with chronic sleep difficulties feel more secure and improve your length of deep sleep. And be mindful of any interruptions (say, Fluffy singing you the song of his people) and try your best to mitigate!
Bed is for Sleeping Only
One of the hardest pieces of advice I give my clients is to keep your bed for sleeping and intimacy only. That’s right: no reading in bed, no watching TV, no browsing your phone. Unfortunately, with the change of our society making houses larger and our bedrooms more spacious and comfortable, people are migrating to make their bed a place for studying, leisure time, or thinking. And why not? It’s the best piece of furniture you’ve got! But, this begins to develop a habit in our brain, that tells our body that it is perfectly fine to lay awake at night in bed, because we do it all the rest of the time, so why not?
Break the habit by setting stern limits around when you use your bed. Find a better space in your home to do your school work, or social media scrolling (your phone shouldn’t even be in the bedroom, remember?). Make your living room couch cozier, or even pull a chair into your bedroom if it really is your only safe haven. And here’s the tough bit: if you are laying awake for longer than 30 minutes at night, get up and go to a different room of the house and only return to your bed when you are feeling drowsy and tired. Trust me. This will SUCK BIG TIME at first, but after around 5-7 days, most people will notice it becomes easier to go to sleep and stay asleep, and they’ll skip the whole tossing and turning stage all together.
Clear your mind
With our busy lifestyles, many of us are running from sun up to sun down and we barely have a chance to catch our breaths. And guess who has been really wanting our attention all that time? Our brain! Turning off the light for sleep can sometimes feel like ‘Open Mic Night’ for our thoughts, and suddenly I’m staring at the ceiling thinking about an embarrassing moment when I was in elementary school, or the million things on my to-do list. This is often because it’s the first quiet time during our time we’ve actually been able to focus on ourselves, and the brain is raring to go and excited to have your undivided attention. Problem is, this typically makes us feel anxious, worried or stressed and that turns off all our sleepy signals pretty fast. So what can you do? Learn to let it go.
Keep a journal beside your bed at night, and without turning on a light, just write out any thoughts or worries, even reminders you need for the next day. Put down the pen, close the book and repeat: I can deal with that tomorrow, I wrote it down, I won’t forget. Better yet – take time to do this pre-emptively by setting aside time in your evening to do a big Brain Dump and write out your thoughts and reflections from the day, or your tasks for the next morning so then they’re not lingering later in the evening. Once you’ve gotten this stuff off your mind, find a calming mantra to repeat to yourself (‘I am OK. I can handle this.’), or start counting backwards from 300 by 4’s. Fill your brain with thoughts of your own breathing, or single a slow lullaby in your head. Essentially, steal the microphone back from your brain and filibuster that thing with boring thoughts until you get sleepy. We count sheep for a reason!
Remember: sleep can be a tough thing to crack, so if you’re really suffering, know there is lots of help out there! Contact your family physician, consider a sleep study, or speak with a mental health professional who can support you along this path. After a bit of work, you can look forward to better sleep and sweet dreams!