Sleep is essential for our mental health and overall well-being.
It’s long been established that we need around 7-8 hours of sleep a night, but equally important is getting good quality, refreshing sleep. Unfortunately for those with depression, this can be very difficult to achieve. In fact, it’s estimated that 40–60% of individuals with insomnia also have symptoms of depression, so clearly there’s a link. Biologists believe that that link comes in the form of a hormone called “melatonin”.
Melatonin is the hormone that prepares our body for sleep. Too much and we’re tired all the time; too little and our internal body clock (also known as circadian rhythm) is disrupted, causing us to have poor, unrefreshing sleep. That’s why one of the biggest indicators that someone is struggling with depression, is seeming tired all the time or oversleeping to compensate.
So how can we help get those precious 7-8 hours if we’re feeling depressed? Here are some top tips:
Establish a routine –
Wake up at the same time each morning, but only go to bed when you feel tired. A lot of people believe that going to bed and waking up at the same time every day is key, but you might not feel tired at 10.30pm, so you end up laying in bed feeling restless. It’s far better to go to bed when you actually feel tired and get less hours of refreshing sleep, than it is to get an abundance of unrefreshing sleep.
No screens before bed –
Light, whether natural or artificial, causes the body to produce less melatonin. This is useful in the daytime, as it helps to keep us awake, but at night, melatonin levels are supposed to naturally rise to help us sleep. Staring at bright screens tricks our mind into thinking it’s daytime, which interrupts the sleep-wake cycle, making it difficult for our minds to switch off when required. Instead, try to establish a relaxing wind-down routine to prepare your body for sleep. Things like reading a book, having a bath or watching anything with Alan Titchmarsh in it tends to yield positive results.
Let there be light –
As difficult as it may be to get out of bed when you’re feeling depressed, you need natural light to help activate your circadian rhythm and regulate sleep patterns for the evening. Even if the best you can do is drag yourself near a window in the living room, it’s still better than hiding away behind drawn curtains. Short term pain for long term gain!
Eliminate “decision fatigue” –
In Psychology, there’s a phenomenon known as “decision fatigue” which suggests that we have a finite amount of decisions we can make in a day before we burn out. In people with depression, this number is even lower! This is why high-flyers such as Mark Zuckerberg, Steve Jobs and Barack Obama have been known to reduce their everyday clothing to one or two outfits a day. So try to limit the number of decisions you have to make and minimise the effort required to get the day going by looking out your clothes and preparing your breakfast/lunch the night before.
Rely on mental anchors –
People with depression often get overwhelmed by thinking about EVERYTHING they need to do in the morning before they can leave the house, and as a result end up doing nothing. One way to overcome this is by breaking down your morning routine into baby steps and treating each task as a mental anchor to get you to the next one. For example, as soon as you wake up, rather than focussing on your entire day, narrow your focus onto one simple task, such as making a cup of tea. Nice and easy, not at all stressful! Then, once you’ve successfully made your cup of tea, move on to the next task, perhaps making breakfast, or a shower etc. Taking that first step and getting out of bed is 90% of the battle. Once we’re up and running, we can rely on momentum to get us through the rest of the day.
Nap smarter –
There’s a misconception with naps that the longer you have, the better you’ll feel. But studies show that anything longer than 45 minutes can actually have the opposite effect. When we sleep, we go through cycles, each one deeper than the last, eventually coming full circle by the time we wake up. Napping for longer than 45 minutes causes us to enter “slow-wave” sleep, where the brain waves slow down dramatically. Waking up in the middle of this cycle can leave us feeling groggy and worse than we did before. Ideally we want to aim for somewhere between 20-30 minutes, as this keeps us in the lighter, more restorative stages of sleep and actually helps to enhance alertness, concentration and elevate mood. That’s why in Japan, it’s culturally accepted to engage in the act of “inemuri” (sleeping on duty) in order to help aid productivity. At least that’s my excuse!
BONUS: What to do if you can’t fall asleep
There will be times where, despite your best efforts, you just can’t seem to switch off. Your mind is racing with thoughts, there’s a car alarm going off several streets away, you’re compulsively checking the clock thinking “oh no, I’ve only got x amount of hours until work the next day. MUST SLEEP”. Relax. You’re just feeling anxious. If you try to fight your way out of it, it’s like being trapped in quicksand; the more you struggle to get out, the deeper you sink. Instead, try a mindfulness technique called “box breathing” where you breathe in through the nose for 4 seconds, hold for 4, breathe out through mouth for 4, and hold for 4, repeating this process over and over again until either the anxiety has subsided or you’ve fallen asleep.
If this doesn’t work, another method you can try is to get up and walk around your room for a few minutes. With anxiety, what tends to happen is the “fight or flight” response (our body’s response to danger) can get triggered unnecessarily, causing you to enter a state of hyper alertness. By getting up and walking around calmly, this lets the body know that we don’t need to run anywhere or flee from anything. We’ve escaped the perceived “threat” and can now relax and start to prepare for sleep.
It’s terribly unfortunate that for those who need it the most, sleep can be the most elusive, but hopefully these tips will help ease your entry into the land of nod.