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The stress and mental health impact of modern sleep patterns
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The Stress and Mental Health Impact of ‘Modern’ Sleep Patterns

Sleep and mental health are very closely related. If you live with a mental health problem, then that can affect your sleep patterns. Conversely, simply suffering from a lack of sleep can have a profound impact on your mental health, even if you have never suffered before.

Lack of sleep means you worry more, and the more you worry, the less you sleep. The mind can have a very powerful impact on your physical health, and it doesn’t take long for a vicious cycle to become established which is hard to break.

How are sleep
problems defined?

If lack of sleep, or poor sleeping patterns are impacting your life on a daily basis, affecting your ability to work, to socialise or to participate in every day activities then a doctor might diagnose you with a sleep disorder.

Modern lives and increasing workloads, coupled with social pressures and busy family lives mean that for many people, sleep can be at a premium. Our increasing reliance on technology and our smart phones means that oftentimes we are contactable 24 hours a day 7 days a week with little or no respite. There are so many things to do and often not enough hours in the day, and this can lead to less sleep, less time resting and an increase in stress.

Sleep problems can have some potentially very distressing side effects. For example, you may find a sleep problem can lead you to:

  • Experience negative thoughts and to notice signs of anxiety and depression creeping in.
  • Irrational thinking patterns and paranoia.
  • Feeling lonely or isolated. Lack of sleep may make you withdraw from seeing people socially or wanting to be around your family and other loved ones.
  • Experience psychosis. In extreme cases of sleeplessness or for those people who have a diagnosis of bipolar disorder, lack of sleep can trigger episodes of mania, psychosis or paranoia.
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How can My Mental Health Problem Affect My Sleep?

Mental health problems and general ill health can affect your sleep. There are a number of ways this can manifest. For instance:

  • Anxiety can increase, which causes bad thoughts to race in your mind. This can then cause lack of sleep as it becomes increasingly difficult to switch your brain off.
  • Conditions such as Seasonal Affective Disorder can lead to oversleeping in winter, and occasionally not sleeping enough in summer. This can sometimes trigger feelings of depression and anxiety.
  • Suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) may often cause night terrors, nightmares and night sweats which can disturb your sleep. This in turn makes people nervous about going to bed or falling asleep which leads to insomnia, and thus an increase in anxiety.
  • Certain mental health problems that cause issues such as paranoia and psychosis may make it difficult for you to get enough rest, and thus enough sleep. Hearing voices or experiencing disturbing thoughts makes it hard for natural rest to occur. Conversely, those people who experience episodes of mania may find that the periods of high energy and elation they experience may also make it hard to switch off and fall asleep.

When trying to rectify sleeping problems caused by mental health issues, it is always best to consult with your doctor or other trained medical professional in order to find out what treatment might suit you best. It may be that you also need to experiment with a number of different sleep hygiene solutions to find the best and most workable result for you.

Establishing a Routine

When trying to combat the stress and mental health impact of modern sleep patterns, it can often help to establish a solid routine to help you unwind and relax as much as possible. There are a few tips to get you started and we’ll explain each of them in more detail as we go along.

  • Relax properly before bed
  • Start a sleep diary
  • Go tech free
  • Consider diet and exercise
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One of the best ways to ensure stress free sleep is to try and get into a regular routine by going to bed and getting up at roughly the same time every day. A routine really helps. It means your brain and body are prepared for sleep and are getting ready to switch off and wind down.

Even on days when you might get to bed a bit later, still try and get up at the same time. It means you might spend less time in bed, but more of the time should be spent asleep (in theory).

Relaxing Properly before Bed

A relaxation routine can be a big help and there are lots of different methods you can try to help prepare you for a better, more beneficial sleep.

Be aware of the things you find calming, so for instance incorporate listening to relaxing classical music into your wind down routine, or a warm (but not hot) bath with essential oils in it. A cup of calming camomile tea, or hot milk with honey and cinnamon. Reading a favourite book. These are all basic ideas, you might have some of your own that you want to try! Try diaphragmatic breathing. Lie down in a comfortable, dark and quiet space before bed. Breathe in, so your tummy expands rather than your chest. Hold this for a count of eight, let the breath go for a count of eight, then hold your breath for a count of eight, before slowly breathing in again.

Try muscle relaxation. Tense and relax every single muscle in your body, one after the other, beginning with your toes and working up your body till you reach the top of your head. Tense each muscle for a count of five before letting go.

Visualisation and meditation can really help. Thinking about a pleasant place, or scene that holds special memories for you.

Making Your Bedroom Comfortable

It makes sense to have a look at your bedroom and the surroundings you sleep in. Experiment with the light/heat and ambience of the room.

Generally, for most people, quiet, dark and cool rooms work best for optimum sleep. However, it does vary from person to person. Some people prefer to sleep with windows open, some prefer more warmth.

Choose cool, comfortable fabrics to sleep in, and on. So, opt for breathable cotton bedding that will be warm in winter and cooler in summer months and the same for nightwear too.

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Start a Sleep Diary

Some people find that keeping a sleep diary can really help track what is affecting their sleep. This involves recording information about your sleep patterns to help you understand what is going on with your night time slumber.

It could include information regarding:

  • The time you go to bed and the time you get up each day
  • The amount of sleep you have
  • The quality of your sleep rated one to ten – one being poor, ten being amazing!
  • The number of times you wake up in the night.
  • The dreams you have and whether they are nightmares, or anything that you feel is troubling you.
  • The amount of naps you take during the week and how long they last.
  • The amount of caffeine you drink, and whether you smoke or drink alcohol.
  • The foods you eat and when you eat them the amount of physical activity you do

The state of your moods, how depressed/anxious you feel, or conversely how happy/upbeat you are.

Talk through Anything that is Worrying You

What are the things in your day to day life that are causing you stress or worry? If you can identify these and talk to someone about them, it can help clear your mind and free you from extra anxiety that can prevent sleep.

If you can’t talk to someone, write the thoughts down. Sometimes, something as simple as putting pen to paper and writing worries down can be enough to lessen the stress you feel, even if there is no immediate solution.

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Go Tech-Free

The bright lights from phones and laptops, coupled with the stimulation associated with using things like social media can have a major effect on your sleep patterns.

Try to switch off your phone and step away from your laptop two hours before bed. Don’t sleep with your phone on charge in the bedroom, or if you have to, keep it turned over and make sure notification screens and noises are switched off.

Make Sure There are No Underlying Physical Causes

There are some physical conditions that can cause sleeplessness. As can chronic pain, or general ill health caused by minor complaints such as colds and coughs. The latter are easy enough to deal with by making sure you get enough fluids and rest. The former may need investigating by a trained medical professional, so if you think you may have some kind of underlying health issue, speak to a doctor and get some tests done to ascertain what might be wrong.

Consider Diet and Exercise

Food can greatly affect your mood. Sugar, fat and salty foods eaten at the wrong time of day can affect your sleep. Eating too much ‘heavy’, processed food, or food that is too sweet, just before bed can place stress on your adrenal glands, cause blood sugar spikes and crashes, which can make it difficult to get off to sleep, or cause you to fall asleep quickly but then wake a short time later feeling hungry.

Eating a small, light snack about an hour before bed, or having a warm, milky drink can aid sleep as you will go to bed feeling satiated. The calcium in the milk will help relax you and make you feel sleepy.

Similarly, making sure you get enough exercise can help with sleep as it will make you feel more physically tired. This will hold particularly true if you exercise outdoors, as the fresh air will help to clear your mind, too. A simple, short, half hour walk or run will be enough, or even working up a sweat doing some housework.

Consider Medication and Other Treatments

You don’t have to suffer in silence with sleep problems, and if you are really struggling you might find it useful to talk to a doctor or other health care professional about stresses or anxieties that are concerning you.

Many doctors prefer not to prescribe sleeping tablets these days as they are known to be addictive, so you may be encouraged to engage in talking therapy, or to perhaps try an anti-depressant medication to help regulate your mood and your sleep patterns over a period of a few weeks. In severe cases, short term doses of sleeping tablets may be prescribed under strict guidance from your doctor.

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