Sleep and Mental Health: How Can I Improve It?

Sleep and Mental Health: How Can I Improve It?

by Anna Robertshaw, MSW, RSW

Sleep – when we’re not getting enough, it can be all we think about. Research shows that sleep is essential to maintaining our physical and mental health. And anyone who isn’t getting good quality sleep can attest to the havoc it plays on our ability to show up at home, school, work, and socially.

Sleep is a fundamental human need that plays a crucial role in promoting physical, emotional, and mental well-being. It allows the body and mind to rest, restore, and rejuvenate. Sleep deprivation or poor sleep quality can have a significant impact on mental health, including mood disorders, anxiety,
depression, cognitive impairments, and chronic pain. In this blog post, we will explore the relationship between sleep and mental health, and why prioritizing quality sleep is essential for maintaining good mental health.

The Connection Between Sleep and Mental Health

Sleep and mental health are closely interlinked. Poor sleep can cause or worsen mental health symptoms, and mental health symptoms can affect the quality and quantity of sleep. Sleep deprivation can lead to increased levels of stress hormones, such as cortisol, which can contribute to anxiety and depression. 

Lack of sleep can also impact the brain’s ability to regulate emotions, resulting in mood swings, irritability, and difficulty managing stress. On the other hand, people living with depression and anxiety may experience insomnia, which can make their symptoms worse.

The Impact of Sleep on Mood Disorders

Mood disorders such as depression and bipolar disorder are strongly associated with sleep disturbances. People with depression often experience insomnia, which can make it difficult for them to fall asleep, stay asleep, or get restful sleep. Insomnia can also worsen depression symptoms such as low mood, lack of energy, and difficulty concentrating. Further, people with bipolar disorder may experience hypersomnia or excessive daytime sleepiness, which can affect their ability to function and interfere with their daily activities.

The Impact of Sleep on Anxiety Disorders

Anxiety disorders are also closely linked to sleep disturbances. People with anxiety may experience insomnia or sleep disturbances due to racing thoughts, worry, and physical symptoms such as heart palpitations and sweating. Poor sleep quality can increase anxiety symptoms and contribute to a vicious
cycle of sleep deprivation and anxiety.

The Impact of Sleep on Cognitive Function

Sleep is essential for optimal cognitive function, including attention, concentration, and memory. Sleep deprivation can impair cognitive performance, including executive function, decision-making, and
problem-solving. Chronic sleep deprivation can also have long-term effects on brain function, leading to cognitive decline and increased risk of dementia.

The Impact of Sleep on Chronic Pain

Good quality and adequate sleep plays a crucial role in managing chronic pain. Without it, people may experience increased sensitivity to pain signals, making pain feel even more intense. Further, sleep deprivation reduces our pain tolerance, which leads to more daytime pain perception and impairment.

Sleep also supports emotional regulation and stress management, making it an essential part of the coping toolbox for those living with chronic pain.

Tips for a More Restful Sleep

We’ve put together a list of simple tips and tricks to help you foster better sleeping patterns.

If sleep continues to be a factor, and is impacting your mood, anxiety levels, chronic pain, or relationships, you may be helpful to speak with a therapist.

    1. Wake up at the same time each day.
      We make a big deal about going to bed at a decent hour – but what about wake times? Creating a consistent wake time (yes, even on the weekends) will help to reset your body’s natural circadian rhythm and encourage consistency in your sleep quality.

    1. Get comfortable.
      Create a relaxing sleep environment by making sure your bedroom is cool, dark, and quiet. Use comfortable bedding and pillows and consider investing in blackout curtains or a white noise machine.

    1. Limit screen time before bed and during the night.
      We’ve all reached for that little screen after an hour of staring at the ceiling in the dark – scrolling through Instagram or the news to distract from our own discomfort. However, the blue light emitted by electronic devices can interfere with our engagement in REM sleep. REM sleep is vital in brain development, emotional processing, and memory consolidation. Try to limit your use of electronic devices in the hour or two before bed, and consider using a blue light filter on your devices.

    1. Practice good sleep hygiene.
      Avoid caffeine and alcohol in the hours leading up to bedtime and try to limit your intake of food and fluids before bed. Engage in relaxing activities like reading or taking a warm bath before bed.

    1. Get up!
      It feels counter-intuitive, but if you’ve been tossing and turning in bed for more than 20 minutes – get up! Head to the living room, empty the dishwasher, do something boring – anything to counteract the anxiety and dread that comes from lying in bed trying really hard to sleep. Don’t climb back into bed until your eyelids are drooping.

How can working with a therapist help?

Sometimes the tips listed above just don’t account for the distress chronic sleep disruption causes. In that case, working with a professional to address your sleep concerns may be the best option.

A therapist will work with you to address the anxiety, hopelessness, or frustration that may be present as a result of your struggle with sleep. Cognitive-behavioural and mindfulness based therapies are commonly used to address thoughts, feelings, and body sensations associated with sleep, sleep anxiety, and insomnia.

Further, a therapist can help to process difficult experiences such as nightmares, night terrors, or sleep paralysis, which are often endured in isolation or silence.


Who We Are

We are a team of compassionate and welcoming Psychologists and Social Workers in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. We create space to understand people and their stories by looking beyond symptoms and diagnoses. Learn more about our team here

Anna Robertshaw