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Catch those Z’s! Understanding the Connection: Sleep and Mental Health

It’s widely recognized that a good night’s sleep can significantly improve how you feel come morning. However, the depth of the relationship between sleep and mental health goes far beyond waking up refreshed. Research consistently shows that quality sleep is a crucial component in maintaining mental wellness.

sleep and mental health

Lack of adequate sleep can lead to increased irritability, stress, diminished positive emotions, and a decrease in energy, motivation, cognitive functions, memory, and concentration. Given our brains require rest to recover, inadequate sleep over one or more nights can adversely affect our daily functioning, leading to slurred speech, coordination problems, forgetfulness, and delayed reaction times—all indicative of the impacts of insomnia and sleep deprivation. Sleep serves as a critical reset mechanism for our brains.

What is Insomnia and Its Effect on Sleep and Mental Health?

Insomnia is a sleep-wake disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition, revised text (DSM-5-TR) 2It is characterized by the following:

  • Trouble falling asleep or onset insomnia

  • Trouble staying asleep or middle insomnia

  • Waking too early or late insomnia

In order to meet the criteria for a diagnosis of insomnia, the following must also be met:

  • You have trouble sleeping at least 3 nights per week and for at least 3 months

  • You have trouble sleeping even with ample opportunity to do so

  • There is no other sleep-wake disorder, substance use disorder, or coexisting mental health condition that can explain your trouble with sleep and not be attributable to other disorders or conditions.

The Prevalence of Insomnia and Its Role in Sleep and Mental Health

The prevalence of insomnia has been estimated by many studies conducted worldwide to occur in anywhere from 10% - 50% of the population.3 According to one study found in the journal Sleep Medicine, one in three participants had symptoms of clinical insomnia, and one in five met the DSM criteria for an insomnia disorder.As the most common sleep-wake disorder, its important that we know how to detect insomnia and ways to prevent and treat it!

What causes insomnia?

Insomnia may be related to another condition you have, such as depression, anxiety, or a trauma-related condition. Insomnia may also be caused by one or more of the following factors:

Stress and anxiety. When our mind struggles to rest, our bodies do, too. If you are having racing thoughts about unpaid bills, upcoming deadlines, worries about the future, or are feeling down, depressed or hopeless due to a stressful life event such as loss of a loved one or recent job loss, you may experience difficulties with sleep.

Disruptions to routine. Since our bodies follow a rhythm known as “circadian rhythm,” disruptions to our routines around eating, sleeping, and waking can make it challenging for our bodies to know when it’s time to rest. When we travel, work an earlier or later shift than normal, or nap during the day, our bodies don’t get a chance to get used to the same cues and routines to help us follow a regular sleep schedule.

Unhealthy sleep habits. Our beds should be used for one thing only - sleep! Sometimes, when we use our beds as a place where we do work, watch TV, eat, play video games, or scroll on our phone, the association of bed = sleep gets weakened. Furthermore, we need to follow a healthy sleep hygiene schedule that involves winding down without screens at least 30 minutes before bed, to prepare our brains for rest. (More on this below!)

Caffeine, nicotine or alcohol. These are all substances that can interfere with sleep. Be sure to avoid coffee, tea, and other beverages and medications with caffeine in the afternoon and evening, as they can prevent you from falling asleep. While alcohol may make you drowsy, it ultimately prevents you from getting into deeper stages of restorative sleep, making you feel groggy and tired in the morning.

  • Other risk factors for insomnia include certain medical conditions, chronic pain, pregnancy, and getting older.

Prevention and Treatment of Insomnia5

  • Sleep hygiene. As stated above, it’s important to make your bed a space where you primarily sleep. Avoiding stimulating activities such as watching TV, scrolling your phone, or eating, will help to build a strong association between your sleeping space and sleep. Going to bed at the same time each night and waking at the same time each day, will help your body acclimate to a sleep schedule. Try to avoid napping during the day so you’re tired enough to sleep at bedtime. If you are trying to fall asleep for 20-30 minutes and find yourself unable to do so, try getting out of bed an engaging in a relaxing activity, such as a bath, shower, listening to calm music in a dark room, deep breathing, or meditation.

  • Addressing causes of stress and anxiety. Identifying the root causes of racing thoughts and worries can help to ensure a more restful night’s sleep. Working with a therapist using Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, you can identify the thoughts and beliefs keeping you awake and affecting your sleep. Behaviorally, your therapist can help you identify steps you can take to improve your sleep hygiene.

  • Paradoxical Intention. This strategy is most suitable for insomnia when the person is experiencing anxious thoughts about getting sleep, losing sleep and the subsequent impact on their life. The goal is to get into bed and try to not fall asleep. This is believed to reduce the performance anxiety surrounding sleep and help the anxiety to diminish gradually with time.

  • Medication. In some cases, your doctor will prescribe medication to assist with sleep. These medications vary in type; common medications for insomnia can be found here. It is important to keep in mind that medication is not a long-term solution for trouble with sleep, and that medication should be used in combination with healthy sleep hygiene practices, and the root cause of sleeplessness should be identified through therapy.

A therapist can help to support you in your journey toward better sleep.

Contact us today if you’re suffering from problems with sleep, anxiety, depression, or more, and allow us to support you in your goals toward feeling better.


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