Mental Health Meets Sleep

Mental health has been one of my biggest passions for as long as I can remember. At first, as a teenager, I merely had an interest in it and focused on decreasing the stigma amongst my peers. Over time, I got a bachelor’s degree in Psychology, worked as a counsellor, got my Masters in Counselling Psychology, and became a registered Psychotherapist. I spent years focusing on the mental health of children and adolescents.

A surprisingly high number of my younger clients present with similar complaints: “I struggle to fall asleep every night” or “I’m so tired all the time”. These clients and their parents constantly describe struggles to go to bed and fall asleep or struggles to stay asleep through the night.

Sleep Problem or Mental Health Problem?

The relationship between sleep and mental health can often feel like a “Chicken or Egg” argument. Which comes first: mental health struggles or sleep deprivation? Working as a counsellor, I was inclined to explore how mental health struggles can lead to difficulty sleeping. Now that I am a new mom and have experienced significant sleep deprivation, I understand better how poor sleep impacts our mental health and vice versa.

We know scientifically that anxiety, depression and other mental health difficulties can cause sleep problems, but we also know how difficult it can be for the body and the brain to heal and process when one isn’t getting enough rest. Sleep deprivation, and even minor sleep debt, affect the prefrontal cortex which is responsible for decision making. In addition to this, sleep deficits can also decrease dopamine productivity (the neurochemical commonly referred to as the reward response) and increase anxious and depressive symptoms.

Putting Yourself First

As a psychotherapist, I am part of a body of professionals who encourage people to engage in self-care as a means to improve mental health. Often, we envision this self-care as meditation, exercise, healthy eating, etc. Yet, we should also encourage healthy sleep habits as a part of self-care! As parents, this is even more important because our children learn from us. If we want our children to focus on getting good sleep, we must model this for them!

Now, as a psychotherapist and a sleep consultant, I will go a step further and suggest that if we want our children to have strong mental health, we must model good sleep habits! Remember… since we don’t know what comes first, sleep problems or mental health problems, why risk either one?

Here are a few tips for healthy adult sleep habits!

  • Avoid napping during the day
    o If necessary, limit naps to 30 minutes per day
  • Avoid caffeine in the hours before bed
  • Use your bedroom for sleep only
  • Decrease screen time before bed
    o Preferably no screens within an hour of sleep
  • Set a consistent bedtime each night
  • Create a consistent bedtime routine

Happy sleeping!