Sleep’s vital role in mental resilience

Sleep is crucial to good health and even partial sleep deprivation has a significant effect on mood. Sleep affects mood, and mood affects sleep.

As the Sleep Foundation puts it: “Anxiety increases agitation and arousal, which make it hard to sleep. Stress also affects sleep by making the body aroused, awake, and alert.”

Chronic sleep disruptions increase the likelihood of negative thinking, depression, anxiety, and emotional vulnerability.

And good quality sleep assists with recovery from stressful experiences and is related to greater mental resilience. 

So, during the pandemic, with uncertainty pervasive and anxiety rampant, there’s little wonder our sleep has been affected.

Hailey Meaklim, a Melbourne-based psychologist at St Vincent’s Hospital Sleep Centre, told ABC News a study of pandemic sleep patterns revealed that 46 per cent of respondents had experienced poor sleep quality – up from 25 per cent of people before the pandemic.

“It is quite normal in times of stress to experience some sleep disturbances,” she said.

Our slumber has been impacted by coronavirus-related stressors, including changes to people’s employment or financial situation.

“When we’re stressed and anxious, sleep – at least for some people – can be one of the first things to be affected.”

Ms Meaklim says high levels of stress hormones on the brain are linked to nightmares.

Not surprisingly, she advises us to manage our stress by getting a better night’s sleep.

“That involves eating healthily, exercising, setting aside time for relaxation, and making sure you’re staying socially connected, despite the current restrictions.”

Older Australians face a unique challenge. Melatonin, a hormone that is naturally produced in the body at night and helps promote sleep, decreases as we age, making it harder to get a good night’s sleep. As we get older, our sleep patterns change and we are more susceptible to sleep conditions that affect the quality and amount of sleep we are getting, impacting our overall health. Older people tend to take longer to fall asleep, sleep more lightly, and spend less time in deep sleep.

Sleep apnoea, which disrupts breathing while we sleep, increases in prevalence as we get older. According to a study published by the American Thoracic Society (ATS), sleep apnoea occurs in only 3.2 per cent of adult men aged 20–44, compared with 11.4 per cent of men aged 45–64 and 18.1 per cent of men aged 61–100.

If untreated, sleep apnoea can result in hundreds of harmful sleep disruptions each night. In Sleep Awareness Week, we offer these hints to get a good night’s sleep. (Sources: Sleep Health Foundation, St Vincent’s Hospital Sleep Centre.)

Diet, alcohol and exercise
Get some exercise, eat sensibly, do not drink too much alcohol, and avoid caffeine close to bed. Make sure that you do something fun and have a laugh during the day. A diet featuring fibre, nuts, legumes, oily fish and olive oil (sometimes called the Mediterranean diet) has been proven to be closely associated with a higher quality of sleep in some adults. As much as possible keep a normal routine throughout the day.

Limit media exposure
If reading articles on coronavirus is causing you stress, it’s a good idea to avoid anything related to the pandemic before bed. Use official websites (such as www.health.gov.au) as information sources. Avoid news and social media for an hour before bed, so you can go to sleep with a relaxed mind. If you can’t unwind, write down your concerns and your plans for tackling them the following day. You may also like to try using a smartphone app called ‘Smiling Mind’, which offers helpful short mindfulness activities to help you relax.

Establish a routine
Try to go to bed at about the same time every night and get out of bed about the same time every morning. An alarm clock can help with this. Avoid sleeping in, even if you have had a poor night’s sleep and still feel tired. Don’t go to bed too early and aim to only spend the time in bed that you actually need for sleep (e.g. eight hours). If you happen to wake early, think about getting out of bed and starting your day. Regular sleep habits strengthen your body clock’s sleep-wake rhythm. Exposure to sunlight during the morning and late afternoon also help your body clock.

Resist the urge to ‘catch up on sleep’
Trying to compensate for lost sleep, by sleeping in or going to bed early, does not work and makes it less likely you will sleep well the following night. “The release of melatonin is not in the right spot, and we haven’t been awake long enough for our bodies to be ready enough for sleep then,” says Ms Meaklim.

Don’t overdo the naps
“You want to save up your appetite for sleep for the night-time, rather than getting little snacks of sleep, if you like, during the day,” says Ms Meaklim. Feeling tired during the day doesn’t necessarily mean you should sleep. Sometimes it is a reaction to change, stress and feeling overwhelmed.

Seek help
If you’ve had trouble sleeping for a month and you’re distressed, it’s time to seek help, says Ms Meaklim. Sort out your sleep issue before it becomes a chronic problem. Your doctor can write you a referral to a specialist sleep doctor or a sleep psychologist.

Connect with others
Talking to someone you trust about your worries can often help. Get some advice from a trusted person who might be able to help you solve the problem. Social distancing does not need to equate to social isolation.

Keep your bed for sleep
If you go to bed and find that you cannot get to sleep, or if you wake up during the night and cannot get back to sleep, get up and do something relaxing in dim light that is quiet and away from the bedroom. Go back to bed when you feel ready to fall asleep.

Managing fatigue
Remember, if you did not get much sleep, it is not the end of the world. You will get through the next day all right and, if you are quite tired, you will probably sleep better the next night.

Sleep is like a butterfly
You cannot reach out and grab it and catch it. If you stay quiet and still, the butterfly will come to you. It is the same with sleep. You cannot force yourself to go to sleep, so do not try. Simply allow yourself to be relaxed and quiet, and sleep will come to you.

For more sleeping tips during the pandemic, including for those staying indoors during isolation, go to the sleepfoundation.org.au

Has your sleep been affected by the pandemic? Are you taking steps to ease the problem?

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Written by Will Brodie

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