One day a few months ago, when I was still doing a lot of traveling between Maupin and Salem for work and family reasons, I realized that I was sleeping a lot better on guest room and hotel mattresses than I ever slept at home. We’d known that our home mattress (which had never been that comfortable to begin with) was decades overdue to be replaced, but shopping for a new one just never seemed to be a priority. Once I realized that it had probably been affecting my sleep more than I knew, we took action, and it’s been like the difference between night and day (sorry—I couldn’t resist the pun!) in the quality of our sleep…and with better sleep I find myself more energetic and resilient, among other benefits, just like the sleep experts say.
This got me thinking about the topic of sleep, and of its importance to everyone in supporting mental health and emotional balance.
The bottom line is that good sleep is as critical to our overall health as food, water and air. It is when we are asleep that our tissues and organs repair themselves, and that our brains store our memories and process all the “input” of each day. Medical science has found a direct link between poor sleep (which is generally defined as less than 6 hours a night of restful sleep) and the incidence and severity of anxiety and depression, as well as with problems with memory, concentration, and focus. Lack of sleep depletes our energy reserves, in turn affecting our ability to handle unexpected difficulties and crises as well as the challenges of everyday life. This in turn can lower our self-confidence, which in turn makes us vulnerable to developing anxiety and depression. Chronic tiredness can also make it difficult to engage in social activities, leading to social isolation, loneliness, and (once again) depression. And when we are tired, fatigue affects our ability to rationalize anxieties and recognize irrational thoughts, which can feed into the negative thinking patterns that can contribute to mental health problems. There’s also growing evidence that lack of sufficient sleep is a major factor in inflammation, and inflammation itself may be a direct cause of depression, along with the other health problems (heart disease, diabetes, and other) that it is associated with.
For many people, getting a good night’s sleep on a regular basis is simply a matter developing and following behavioral habits which are known to be effective in promoting regular, restful sleep. Here are some of these:
- Establish a routine. Try to establish a regular sleeping pattern by going to bed and getting up at roughly the same time every day. This allows the body to start to associate specific times of the day with sleeping. It may take several weeks of doing this regularly before the body starts to respond automatically, but it does eventually happen!
2. Establish “bedtime” at whatever hour you usually feel tired enough to sleep. Everyone has different body-clocks, and yours may not be the same as your spouse’s. But if you go to bed earlier than it is natural for you to fall asleep, your body will associate going to bed with sleeplessness, not sleep. Best to delay getting into bed until the point when you would normally fall asleep. This may mean you will spend less time actually in bed, but more of the time in bed asleep.
3. Make sure that your mattress is comfortable (ahem), and that the temperature, light and noises levels are right for you. On the whole, dark, quiet and cool environments generally make it easier to sleep, though some people find they sleep better with a radio or white-noise machine. More couples that you might think (according to the National Sleep Foundation, the percentage is a whopping 1 in 4 couples) sleep in separate bedrooms, not because they are unhappy, but because couples often have different needs with respect to a comfortable sleeping environment.
4. Take time to relax and unplug before you go to bed. It’s important to wind down and away from daily concerns before you try to go to sleep. Stop doing any physically or mentally stimulating activities, including both exercise and looking at electronic screens (phone, computer, TV) at least an hour before you go to bed. It may also help to do something calming (listening to relaxing music, taking a warm bath).
5. Be aware that what and when you eat and drink can affect how well you sleep. Avoid using stimulants like caffeine and nicotine in the evening. And while alcohol can make you sleepy initially, it actually tends to produce less restful, more distrubed sleep during the night. Large meals late in the evening should also be avoided. And it’s a good idea not to drink too much liquid before you go to bed, to limit the need for night-time trips to the bathroom.
6. If you still struggle to go to sleep, breathing exercises, muscle relaxation exercises, visualization and/or meditation techniques can be very helpful in teaching your mind and body to relax. Many of these are available as recordings, and a behavioral health professional or internet sleep-hygiene resource site can be good sources for specific tools. If worries or other thinking patterns are part of the problem, self-help materials specifically based on Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) techniques can be especially helpful.
7. What about herbs and medication? While herbal remedies and medication are also options, these should be used as a last resort, and with the consultation and supervision of a qualified health professional. “Sleeping pills” in particular are notoriously habit-forming, and used regularly, can worsen the problem they were meant to solve.
And with that, I’d better sign off. It’s past my bedtime, and even farther past my off-with-the-screen time!