When you think about it, sleep has an almost comical level of domination over our lives.
Yeah, humans are creatures of habit and routine — but so many of us are diverse, adventurous and curious people. Despite all of that, at the end of each day, there’s nothing we want more than to climb into a big soft bed and switch our bodies off for hours.
Sleep isn’t something we can’t live without, but it’s also one of our most powerful tools.
With mental health now at the forefront of the international conversation and culture, it’s more important than ever we understand how our lifestyles may be having a negative impact. Sleep is such a crucial part of that (you spend a third of your life sleeping, you know) and it’s vital everyone knows how to harness the power of it for better mental health.
Why is sleep important for mental health?
Sleep gives our body time to repair itself and our brains the opportunity to consolidate memories and process information. Just like eating, drinking and breathing keeps you going throughout the day, sleep ensures you’re ready for another one.
The impact of poor sleep on the body in a physical sense is obvious to anyone who’s ever pulled an all nighter, but the long-term impacts on your mental health may not be as obvious.
When trying to change your life, fitness or thinking, sleep should always be a crucial factor in your decision-making. It’s no good trying to reset your body when a lack of sleep has you feeling rinsed out.
Without proper sleep your ability to do anything is diminished, which can have serious impacts on people’s mental health, especially when they’re already feeling vulnerable.
In short, a lack of sleep means your brain can’t recharge, which drastically affects your daily performance and emotional state. Serious conditions are often amplified by a lack of sleep and the stress that brings.
How to sleep well
Sleeping well involves more than changing your sheets and getting into bed (although a fresh start is always helpful).
While sleep may feel like the opposite of effort, there are a few conscious ways you can improve your sleeping habits to positively impact your mental health.
Getting your heart racing and blood pumping might not seem like the most sensible thing to do before bedtime, but a little exercise can set you up for a more comfortable and relaxed sleeping experience.
Three hours before you tuck yourself into bed, dedicate an hour of your evening to exercise (or complete your regular routine). If you’re more of a morning runner or love the peace of the gym at 1pm, it might be worth changing up your routine. Sure, those schedules avoid the crowds and give you a chance to start the day right, but poor timing and the pressure to get up early can lead to negative mental health impacts, no matter how shredded you look.
If you’re not one for fitness, introducing some regular exercise into your routine could help make your transition to good sleep a bit smoother. A day spent in your room on your laptop, watching TV or sitting in the office often won’t stimulate you enough for you to get to sleep early, so push your body a little to tire it out (in a good way).
Avoid detrimental drinks
Unless you’re drinking non-stop water 24 hours a day, you’re probably putting some beverages in your body that aren’t exactly the best for you.
It’s fine to need a coffee or tea in the morning to get yourself ready for the day ahead, but before bed? Not the best idea. Everyone knows caffeine wakes you up. Do you really want to spend the night pumped up and staring at the ceiling with worries whirling around your head?
Alcohol can have much of the same effect on your mental health at night. Getting drunk can significantly affect the quality of your sleep. Now, that’s fine every once in a while (if you can handle the hangover) but doing the same thing multiple times a week will start to wear out your body and your mind.
Follow a schedule
A common piece of advice for people feeling frustrated, anxious and depressed in life is to try and create a positive, reaffirming schedule for themselves.
A to-do list, a collection of goals for the day, a diary to list their thoughts in… These types of schedules (allow for the loose use of the word) can help put people’s problems into perspective, notice the things that spark joy in their lives, and target negative emotional triggers. An important part of this schedule? You guessed it — a good night’s sleep.
Sleep is as much a part of your day as going to work or eating dinner, even if you’re not aware of it. On the weekdays, try and wake up at the same time every day and ensure you’re keeping a regular bed time. Early mornings can make you feel much fresher when you get into work, while a good night’s sleep earned from an early night makes getting up all the more easier.
For many people, it’s the little frustrations in life that lead to deeper mental health problems down the line (you’ve probably heard of the stress bucket concept). Having a positive sleep schedule can start to address some of the physical challenges of the working week grind and give you the time to feel alive every morning.
Be careful how you use your bed
As a final point, it’s important you’re aware of exactly what your bed is for and how incorrectly using it may be impacting your schedule and mental health.
In a remote-working world, it can be hard to separate the rest of your life from the bedroom. Even before people started working from home, many younger people found themselves confined to small bedrooms in shared house situations or living with their parents.
You can spend hours on end reading, gaming and eating from the comfort of your bed. While that’s cosy on a rainy Saturday, it’s not the best way to ensure a good night’s sleep.
Sleep experts constantly extol the virtues of ignoring your bed until it’s time to sleep; working and relaxing in your bed before it’s time to sleep can send mixed signals to your brain, and make it harder to get to sleep at night. In truth, beds should only be used for sleeping and sex.
Try and ignore the urge to lie down and watch YouTube for hours before or eat your dinner between the sheets. Creating a separation is vital, so make as much use of the rest of your house or flat as you can.
It’s hard to train yourself to sleep differently. It can feel so natural, even when you’re having trouble doing it.
Whether you’ve been feeling anxious for a while or just a little down about work, try mixing up how you sleep and what you do around it. Your tired body will thank you for it.