As the clocks go back by one hour this Sunday, our Senior Clinical Advisor, Dr Fiona Pienaar, explores the research behind the importance of getting enough, good quality sleep for our mental health and wellbeing. Fiona also reveals how sleep was mentioned in 88,000 conversations with children, young people and adults seeking support with their mental health through our Shout text messaging service last year, and provides advice for those experiencing sleep challenges.
As our bodies and minds adjust to the clocks going back an hour on Sunday 31st October, it’s a good opportunity to stop and think about the quality of your sleep and your sleep routine.
Sleep is fundamental to our mental health and wellbeing. Ensuring that we are getting sufficient sleep on a regular basis gives our bodies and minds the opportunity to rest, relax, recover and rejuvenate. The typically recommended time adults above the age of 18 should sleep is 7 or more hours per night, with adolescents recommended 8 to 10 hours.
As simple as that sounds, we know that millions of people around the world struggle with sleep challenges, including trouble falling asleep, disrupted sleep and nightmares, as well as problems with sleeping too much.
Prior to Covid-19, insomnia, described as ‘an inability to initiate or maintain sleep’ (CDC, 2020), was already recognised as a common sleep disorder. Given the numerous challenges the public continues to face as a result of Covid-19, it is not surprising that there has been ‘a surge in sleep disorders’ around the world (Partinen, 2021). Pandemic-related circumstances including confinement, blurred work-life boundaries, increased alcohol consumption, sickness, financial loss and hardship, disrupted routines, lack of social connection and over-exposure to screens and information have led to an increase in stress, anxiety, depression and other mental health disorders. This can negatively impact our ability to sleep soundly.
Over the course of 2020, our 24/7 Shout 85258 text message support service took more than 88,000 conversations with texters who mentioned the word ‘sleep’, with a third of those conversations also talking about anxiety and around 40% talking about suicide. We are seeing similar patterns during 2021.
A high percentage of texters reach out for support from Shout post-midnight, typically when other services are no longer available but also because reaching out in the moment by text enables people to get immediate, confidential support. This activity continues until the early hours of the morning revealing how people are struggling to sleep. One can start to understand the challenges many are experiencing with their mental health with growing research evidence revealing that lack of sleep impacts on people’s cognitive systems and emotion-processing networks (Killgore, 2010), and their ability to cope with unwanted or distressing thoughts (Harrington et al, 2020).
If you’re struggling, there are recommended, helpful steps you can take to ensure that you improve your sleep hygiene, develop healthy habits and settle into a pattern of regular, deep, restorative sleep.
Advice for improving the quality of your sleep
- Stop and consciously think about your sleep. Have a conversation with a friend or family member where you both talk about your routine and the quality of your sleep. Even if you’re not obviously struggling, doing a sleep ‘audit’ is part of looking after your physical and mental health and wellbeing.
- Go to bed at more or less the same time each night and get up at around the same time every morning, even on the weekend. This can help you start to develop a regular sleep cycle that your mind and body can rely on and relax into.
- Taking some exercise each day, as well as eating well and regularly throughout the day, can help to improve your sleep hygiene. It is recommended that you don’t drink alcohol 3 hours before going to bed or caffeine 10 hours before going to bed.
- Avoid screen time before bed and, in particular, try to leave electronic devices like TVs, laptops and mobiles outside of your bedroom or at least switched off.
- Keep your bedroom at a comfortable cool temperature and make sure it’s dark and quiet.
- Be aware of your thoughts and emotions. Consciously catch and clear your thoughts, relax your body and focus on your breathing. You can try these breathing exercises.
- If you have a lot on your mind, it can help to make a list before your bedtime. It’s like clearing your head. Similarly, if you find yourself thinking about your ‘to do’ list while trying to fall asleep, get up, make that list and head back to bed.
Importantly, if your challenges with sleep are starting to affect your mental and physical health and wellbeing, seek advice and support from a health professional.
Don’t forget that if you are struggling with sleep, or if you are feeling worried, overwhelmed or low, our volunteers are available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week to listen and support you. Text ‘SHOUT’ to 85258 to start a conversation.