Our mental health is affected by many different factors, from what we eat, to the pace we live by, stressors, ameliorating elements, and finally, sleep. The ways in which rest shapes our quality of life are multifaceted and run deeper than previously understood. So how do sleep and mental health interact with each other? Read on to find out.
Sleep to Dream: How Sleep and Loss of Consciousness Protect Our Health
When we sleep, our body’s basic functions change their pace. As a result, one’s breathing, heart rate, and digestive system all decelerate, or adopt a new rhythm. Your mind and brain’s functioning are also affected by sleep, as the brain secretes hormones that shut off one’s consciousness, allowing the sleeping process to take place.
Sleep is both gradual and cyclical, meaning that one’s mind and brain activity shift toward sleep in stages, which repeat themselves throughout the night. Each full sleep cycle normally lasts between 90-120 minutes.
The brain produces two distinct types of sleep:
- Slow-wave sleep (SWS), also known as deep sleep. During this stage, the mind and body relax and lower the level of their activity in an effort to recuperate from the day’s faster-paced processes, heal our bodies, and even fight off diseases. It is during the SWS stage that we lose consciousness and sleep begins.
- Rapid eye movement sleep (REM), also known as dream sleep. During this stage, the mind’s activity is amped up, and one’s breathing and heart rate become inconsistent. Though the exact purpose of this stage remains unclear, it appears to help regulate one’s mood, learning, and memory. It also acts as the time when dreams occur, suggesting that REM sleep allows the mind to process some of the mental material that passes through it.
Our body’s 24-hour cycle creates what is known as its circadian rhythm, or internal clock. This light-sensitive bodily mechanism causes us to become more and more tired throughout the day, peaking at night as we fall asleep. Typically, adults require seven-to-nine hours of sleep per night, with children requiring more. That said, research shows that 29% of US adults get six hours of sleep or less per night.
A lack of sleep or of a full-cycle, quality sleep pattern can cause a number of serious physical health issues. Among them are:
- Cardiovascular diseases.
- Type II diabetes.
- A high risk of obesity.
- A compromised immune system.
To Sleep, Perchance to Glean: How Sleep Reflects Our Mental Health
The centrality of sleep in our overall mental health is mostly two-dimensional, as the quality of one’s sleep is both a crucial component of their mental health, and can act as a symptom that alerts of a mental health issue.
In addition to its effects on one’s physical health, good sleep protects against a number of mental health concerns. While 10-18% of the adult US population report chronic sleep problems, 50-80% of patients contending with a mental health issue report suffering from it.
Without enough sleep, or good quality sleep, one develops a higher risk of the following mental health conditions:
- Anxiety. Repeated instances of disturbed sleeping patterns can cause an individual to develop anxiety during bedtime, fearing they will once again not be able to fall asleep. The elevated state of alertness that characterizes anxiety makes it even harder to sleep, thereby contributing to an already existing problem.
- Depression. Whereas trouble surrounding one’s sleep can cause an individual to remain awake for fear that they will be unable to sleep, depression may be caused, or bring about troubled sleeping, from a place of helplessness, a pervasive lack of energy, or more expansive disturbances to one’s daily schedule. In fact, an individual with disturbed sleeping is twice as likely to develop depression later on.
- Memory Issues. Exhaustion from a lack of good sleep can impair one’s ability to function at their usual level of performance. This can lead to a number of mental handicaps, among them the trouble remembering past details and information.
- Compromised Thinking. This can include trouble carrying out complicated calculations, problem solving, performing time-sensitive tasks, switching between assignments, and contemplating complex issues.
- Distorted Reality. In extreme cases of lack of sleep that lasts three days or more, one can experience hallucinations, delusions, and further breaks of reality.
It is also important to stress that sleep disturbances can manifest as trouble falling asleep, trouble remaining asleep, or trouble waking up and starting one’s day.
Sleep-Sliding Away: How to Treat Your Sleep Disturbance and Get Back on Track
Acknowledging the issue of disturbed sleep, and making time to treat it is the first step toward better sleep. Immediate fixes, such as sleeping pills may be widely available, but they can be incompatible with other forms of medication and can quickly become addictive and do not target the actual cause of one’s sleep issues. To do that, other steps are in order:
- Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). This goal-focused form of psychotherapy has been shown to aid in alleviating sleep disturbances. By looking at the physical, behavioral, cognitive, and emotional symptoms that accompany their sleeping pattern, CBT is able to target the patient’s experience, and help them grapple with the ways in which they inadvertently maintain their disrupted sleep.
- Sleep Hygiene. The idea of sleep hygiene helps the individual clear out any distractions, marking their bed as a place where they come to sleep, and not to remain active. When practicing sleep hygiene, the lights are turned off, noises are turned down, and all screens—one’s smartphone, TV, or tablet—are shut down or put away. Now able to give themselves both the physical and mental rest they require, individuals have been found to slip into a state of sleep more easily.
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