Mental health and... sleep

sleep1 (cropped)
12-11-2019

Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher may have claimed to get by on four hours sleep a night, but mention sleep deprivation to most people - especially parents of young children or shift workers - and they will bond over how truly terrible it can make you feel.

Most adults are said to need 7-9 hours sleep a night in order for their bodies and minds to function effectively.

Nearly everyone will have experienced poor sleep at times, perhaps caused by periods of stress or worry, but sleeping fewer than 6 hours a night for an extended period of time has been linked to many illnesses, as well as a higher mortality rate and weight gain.

Problems sleeping can be both a symptom of and a cause of mental health problems. It’s particularly common to have erratic sleep patterns in people with anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder and attention hyperactivity disorder.

Those suffering from anxiety and mania may have trouble falling - and staying - asleep, although depression can have the opposite effect, causing people to feel constantly tired and over-sleep. People with post traumatic stress disorder may also be prone to suffering nightmares or terrors that can lead to disrupted sleep.

There are over 70 types of sleep disorder ranging from insomnia, sleep apnoea and narcolepsy, although not all sleep disorders affect our mental health.

So, for anyone who has lain awake at night trapped in a cycle of looking at the clock and willing themselves to sleep, the National Sleep Organisation has the following ‘sleep hygiene’ tips:

  • Stick to a sleep schedule, even at the weekend
  • Try a relaxing bedtime ritual: a warm bath, a hot drink (not caffeine!), a few pages of your book to wind down
  • Avoid taking naps
  • Exercise daily
  • Is there anything you can change in your bedroom? Make sure your mattress and pillows are comfortable and the room isn’t too hot or cold
  • Avoid cigarettes, alcohol and heavy meals in the evening
  • If sleep proves elusive, it’s sometimes better to go into another room and do something relaxing until you feel tired than to lie there tossing and turning
We asked two of our mental health ambassadors for their thoughts and tips:


Jen Hobart

"Insomnia is pretty common when you have anxiety. Unfortunately, that compounds the higher rate of fatigue which often affects those with anxiety.  When I am having a bad bout of anxiety, I’m in a fairly constant state of fight or flight, which generally means I have no energy left by the end of the day. 

In theory, that should make it easy to sleep but what happens is that I’m processing things internally so there’s nothing to distract from the internal chatter when you’re trying to get to sleep. I’m lucky, and have only had one or two nights where I’ve had no sleep at all, but I know other people for who this is a regular thing.

I find if I’ve been feeling stressed and then not getting the rest I need at night, it tends to lead to utter exhaustion which then makes it hard to concentrate on day to day tasks - and has on occasion left me driving to site visits or the office where I've resorted to pinching myself to stop myself falling asleep at the wheel. 

I've found coping mechanisms which I use when I think I will struggle to shut off at night. Primarily it is keeping a regular sleep routine with the same sleep and get up times; reduced caffeine intake before bed; and meditation. The best thing I’ve invested in during the last year is Headspace: it has a variety of recordings that are designed to help you fall asleep. My favourite are the sleepcasts which are mundane descriptive stories that help tune out the inner chatter. 

And - just putting it out there - NEVER look at your work emails before bed. It helps no one.

Stuart Howison

"Getting a good night’s restful sleep is really important. In the past, if I have been experiencing high levels of anxiety, I have often found it difficult to sleep, due to my mind not being able to ‘switch off’. 

But it can become a vicious circle: the accumulation of several nights of poor or unrestful sleep would only serve to fuel the anxiety being experienced.

My single best tip for improving sleep would be exercise. I find that carrying out some form of exercise, whether that’s going for a run or simply walking the dog, really helps. Similarly, I find that doing a bit of mindfulness or listening to a relaxation podcast just before going to sleep helps me in clearing the mind."

Read more:

  • Tips from the National Sleep Organisation here
  • LionHeart’s counsellors recommend mindfulness as a way of relaxing and supporting your wellbeing. If you would be interested in speaking to a counsellor please call us free on 0800 009 2960 
  • Listen to this simple relaxation and breathing exercise with one of our counsellors here 

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