The Impact of Sleep on Mental Health
by Katie Lewis, PhD
Hi everyone I'm Dr. Katie Lewis. I’m the research psychologist at the Austen Riggs Center and I'm here today to have a general conversation about the impact of sleep on mental health–particularly thinking during this period of time during the COVID-19 pandemic, during periods of social distancing.
In a different post I had mentioned that I’m running a study at the moment trying to understand experiences of loneliness during social distancing and from the pilot data that we've collected, it looks like about two-thirds of people, at least who are participating in my study, are reporting ongoing issues with sleep disruption since the implementation of social distancing and since the pandemic hit. So, it's a really widespread issue.
If you're having sleep difficulty right now you're not alone. There are many people that are reporting changes in their sleep schedule in a way that feels disruptive to their daily functioning. Sleep disturbance can be caused by many things, not the least of which is stressful daily events. Certainly a pandemic counts, I think, as a stressful daily event for most people. But also there could be ongoing issues that impact sleep functioning. Things like ongoing mental health issues like depression and anxiety, chronic health issues, and lifestyle factors. And, unfortunately, many of the lifestyle factors that can negatively impact sleep are related to ways in which people might be coping with the stress of being at home or losing the schedule. So, it can be things like caffeine consumption and screen time–you know, spent on your phone or computer. I don't think during this period anybody is going to be likely to be cutting out caffeine or reducing their screen time. So, I think that sleep issues might be related to any number things–to the stress of the ongoing pandemic, to increased anxiety symptoms, and to increased lifestyle changes that are related to disruptive sleep schedules.
I would like to offer some recommendations. First and foremost if there are ways that you can address sleep hygiene and make lifestyle changes to improve your sleep, try that as a first line of defense–things like: don't drink caffeine too late in the day, try to cut down on screen time later in the day, certainly don't be on your phone at night while you're trying to go to sleep. Try to create an evening schedule that's conducive to calmness and quietness: reading a book, taking a bath, doing something that’s relaxing and soothing. All these things can help promote a sense of calm and restfulness leading up to sleep.
Other options that have proved beneficial to some people include downloading an app that's designed to promote sleep, sleep behavior, sleep functioning. These apps, some of them involve guided meditations, some of them are simply soothing sounds, some of them are a combination of these. The website Healthline has a list of apps that they recommend, but you can really find one that suits your interest in your preferences. There are many out there, most of them are free to download.
If you're already engaged in mental health treatment or if you prefer to take a more structured approach to dealing with sleep disruption, there is a cognitive behavioral therapy designed specifically for insomnia. So, another option might be to try to find a practitioner who’s trained in CBT for insomnia. The VA system also developed an app that's available to the public called CBT-i coach or the CBT-i for insomnia coach that’s publicly available and that also would provide more of a structured approach as well as some psychoeducation around some good sleep hygiene.
Any of these options could help with restoring a positive sleep schedule and restoring a sleep schedule, we know, is related to better emotion regulation to helping to keep stressful events from becoming overwhelming. Sleep has this restorative function for the emotional parts of the brain where, if you don't get a good night's sleep stress can accumulate and carry over to the next day. Whereas a good night’s sleep really helps reset the stress system and emotion response system.
So, as best you can, try to follow some of these suggestions if you're having trouble with sleep and see if they can have a positive impact on your mental health during the day and also understand that if you are having sleep disturbance that you're not alone. A lot of people are going through that at this moment and trying to address their sleep could really have a positive impact for other stress responses that you might be having during this time. So, I hope this information is helpful. Please reach out with any questions. I’d be happy to pass along resources that I’m familiar with and to try and have a conversation to offer anything I can to be helpful.