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Building a Solid Foundation: Sleep


This blog will focus on general areas of mental health and wellness. 


Building a Solid Foundation: Sleep

Lindsey Harcus, Psy.D.


In the second entry of the Building a Solid Foundation blog series, we will review the importance of sleep in maintaining mental wellness and reducing vulnerability to stress. Research has shown that healthy sleep habits can improve cognition, mental well-being and alertness[i]. Although in the past the common belief was that sleep disturbance was solely a symptom of mental illness, recent studies have suggested that sleep can also contribute to and put people at higher risk for the development of a mental health disorder[ii]. While we are still learning more about how sleep impacts us overall, it has been found that treating underlying sleep disturbance can also function to improve other symptoms of mental health disorders, decrease risk of developing mental illness and create a mental resilience to stress.

We all know that sleep impacts how we feel. What we may frequently forget is that it is not just the amount of sleep we receive, but also the quality of sleep. In the digital world we live in, in can be difficult to unplug and give our brains the time they need to “shut down” before bedtime. Americans also tend to be chronic multi-taskers and often read, watch TV and even eat in bed.  Here are some questions to help you address your sleep habits and whether they are helping, or hurting, your chances at quality sleep.


Am I consuming anything during the day that impacts my sleep?

Substances like caffeine, nicotine, alcohol and drugs can all impact our ability to get quality sleep. Limiting coffee, tea, chocolate, nicotine and alcohol use to several hours before bedtime can help reduce difficulty falling and staying asleep. Also, some prescription and over the counter medications can impact sleep. Altering medication schedules, when approved by your doctor, may also help maintain a healthy sleep routine.


Am I maintaining good sleep hygiene?

Sleep hygiene is the term for healthy habits and routines, which work to improve sleep. Sleep hygiene includes maintaining sleep schedules throughout the week, rather than drastically changing times when you sleep and wake. It also includes keeping your bedroom a sacred space for sleep. This means that, to the best of your ability, trying to limit the bed for sleep and avoiding activities like watching TV, reading or eating in bed. It is also a good habit to limit distractions, such as screens, loud clocks and lights, in your bedroom. If you are a “clock watcher,” turn your clock around to reduce the urge to peak throughout the night.


Is technology impacting my sleep?

It can be very tempting to end a long day by checking social media, watching your favorite Netflix show or checking emails. However, when we look at our TVs, computers and cell phones before bed, we are activating our brains directly before we expect it to rest. Blue light, which is emitted from our devices, suppresses melatonin in our brains, which naturally makes us feel tired after the sun goes down. Due to this, minimizing screen time at least an hour before bed is good practice to improve ability to fall asleep. To learn more about blue light and how it impacts sleep, click here[iii].


Am I napping too much?

Don’t stop reading, but there may be such a thing as napping too much! If you are having trouble sleeping, there can be an incredible urge to nap during the day to help manage fatigue. However, napping can maintain the cycle of sleep problems at night. If you must nap, try to keep your nap to 30 minutes in length. This will help to reduce the chance of grogginess or oversleeping during the day[iv].


Are anxiety and negative thoughts keeping me awake?

I often hear that some of the main causes of sleep disturbance are racing anxious and negative thoughts. It can be difficult to “turn off your brain” at the end of the evening. If anxious thoughts are keeping you awake, psychotherapy may be very helpful to learn anxiety management, relaxation and mindfulness skills, which can help you manage negative thoughts before sleep.  


Am I getting enough exercise?

Studies have shown that people who get regular exercise fall asleep faster, wake up less during the night and spend more time in deep sleep[v].  However, it’s important to note that for some people, exercising directly before bed can make it difficult to sleep. Make sure you listen closely to your body and adjust your workout schedule to match your sleep needs.


Have I talked to my doctor?

Some sleep disturbance may require outside medical intervention. It is always good practice to check in with your medical doctor to ensure that sleep disturbance isn’t being caused by an untreated medical condition (i.e. hyperthyroidism). Similarly, a doctor may refer you to a sleep study to better understand your sleep issue and intervene more effectively. An example of this would be using a C-PAP to manage sleep apnea, which causes frequent pauses of breath during sleep.


Additionally, it may be appropriate to seek out a doctor for a medication consultation. I typically recommend that medication be considered as a last solution, after other changes in sleep routine have been tried unsuccessfully. This is due to the fact that many commonly prescribed medications for sleep can cause dependence and groggy, hangover like side effects. Natural methods, such as melatonin, valerian and kava may also be discussed with your doctor, depending on your individual medical history[vi].


Am I practicing sleep habits to improve mental wellness?

Sleep has a significant impact on mental well-being Sleep disturbance can make us more susceptible to mental health problems, or make symptoms worse. Making small changes to help improve your sleep routines is just one step in reducing vulnerability to stress and building a solid foundation for mental wellness. Stay tuned for future blog posts on developing a foundation for emotional resilience.