Research suggests that sleep and mental health have a complicated relationship. Sleep disturbances, insomnia, and trouble falling or staying asleep have been linked to the onset of mental health conditions like anxiety and depression, and may contribute to more severe symptoms of conditions like Bipolar Disorder and ADHD.
On the flip side, mental health conditions can also cause sleep problems, with about 50% of insomnia cases being directly linked to depression, anxiety, or stress. Depending on the type of sleep problem – nightmares, inability to fall or stay asleep, daytime sleepiness, panic attacks, etc – identifying the issue can help point to a possible psychological disorder as the cause.
This connection between sleep and mental health means that it’s probably a good idea to talk to your doctor about possible mental health concerns if you are struggling with sleep. Sleep issues are actually very common, and insomnia affects about ⅓ of the world population, with even higher percentages of people reporting getting less than the recommended 7-9 hours of sleep per night.
The good news is that while the problems are cyclical, so are the solutions. Finding ways to improve sleep can be effective in treating accompanying mental health conditions, and specific mental health treatments, like Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), can be highly effective at resolving serious sleep problems.
Set yourself up for success with a regular bedtime routine, beginning at the same time each night. Put away electronics and screens a full hour before you want to fall asleep. Some ideas you can use to incorporate into a bedtime routine might include: gentle stretching, a skincare routine, journaling, meditation, or reading a book. You might want to explore the use of a sound machine, fan, and very dim lighting as you go through your routine and prepare for sleep.
CBT is a type of psychotherapy that has been known to improve sleep problems and resolve issues of insomnia in many people. It works by changing your lifestyle habits and the patterns of thought you may experience upon attempting to fall asleep. A study from Harvard Medical School found that CBT is more effective in treating chronic insomnia than prescription sleep medications.
If an experience of trauma or other upsetting experience is causing sleep disruptions or the inability to fall asleep, trying EMDR therapy can help.
According to multiple surveys, people who engage in regular exercise multiple times per week are more likely to sleep longer than 6 hours per night and have less trouble falling or staying asleep than those who exercise once per week or less.
If you find yourself tossing and turning at bedtime or waking up in the middle of the night unable to get back to sleep, you might benefit from trying some relaxation techniques in bed. Breath techniques like belly breathing, 4-7-8 patterned breathing, or box breathing all are scientifically proven to increase relaxation. You may also try progressive muscle relaxation or self-hypnosis to bring your mind into a state of focus.
While the benefits of ASMR (Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response) are not fully understood due to only a few studies being done so far, we know anecdotally that many people who experience ASMR report increased relaxation and less trouble falling asleep after using ASMR media. It is important to note that ASMR might be most effective if used an hour before bedtime rather than while falling asleep to promote good sleep habits and keep blue light from your phone or tablet screen out of your bed.
Always talk to your doctor before using sleep medications or herbal remedies.