Does this story sound familiar? I go to work, get home, make dinner, help the kids with their homework, practice, etc., get the kids to bed and clean up the house. Finally, I sit down and watch an hour of TV, go to bed, lay there for an hour or so trying to fall asleep, wake up feeling like I barely slept and start the same pattern over again for another day.
Many of us are not getting enough sleep and/or are not getting quality sleep. Lack of sleep almost seems celebrated in our culture at times. It is like a competition, “You only got six hours of sleep last night... well I only got five!” We all feel the need for quality sleep and suffer when we don’t get it. However, sleep often does not get the attention that it deserves in our lives. This is also true in mental health treatment.
I once attended a training that was led by a person with extensive experience working with traumatized individuals. He told us when he meets with someone that has experienced trauma he can often predict whether or not they are suffering from PTSD simply by asking them if they are having trouble sleeping or not. The reason for this is that during a particular stage of sleep, known as REM sleep, our brains process our life experiences. If we do not reach this stage of sleep, then our brains are not able to complete the process of normal memory integration. Thus, we miss the opportunity to heal from life’s traumas. Even when we get what seems to be a “full night’s sleep” that does not necessarily mean that we are experiencing full sleep cycles. We may be “sleeping” but experiencing minimal restorative rest during the process.
Many people try hard to get good, restful sleep but simply cannot figure out how to do so. Maybe it takes hours to fall asleep, or once they get to sleep, they wake up over and over. People frequently talk about the time period after their heads hit the pillow as being the time they experience the most anxiety, intrusive memories, ruminating thoughts, etc. This is because people are often going to bed with nervous systems that are still highly activated. Many of the activities that people engage in to relax and wind down before bed are not actually helping to relax the nervous system, which plays a central role in our ability to sleep. TV for example, may help provide a distraction from the stresses of the day, but often is not helping to put us in a more restful state. In fact, depending on what is being watched it may actually be creating increased activation and stress. This results in depressed moods, decreased ability to cope with stress, increased emotional reactivity, lack of motivation, etc. Doing something calming before bed that allows us to be present with our thoughts and our experiences can help our minds and bodies relax before we lay down to sleep. Taking a warm shower, journaling, meditation, walking the dog, drawing, listening to music,
talking calmly with a spouse are all examples of things that can help ease us into sleep. Which allows us to fall asleep sooner and reach deeper cycles of sleep.
It is easy to overlook the simple everyday aspects of life when trying to find ways to deal with mental health struggles. Pause and take a minute to really think about how your routines are related to sleep. If sleep is a struggle, it is likely that you will experience limited improvements of your mental health symptoms until sleep is addressed.