Managing your mental health: The importance of sleep

Mental health blogger Fiona Kennedy looks at the role of sleep in our mental wellbeing

I seem to be quite a slow learner when it comes to figuring out what’s good for me, managing my mental and emotional well-being, and doing what I know will make me feel better. There are many lessons I’ve had to learn repeatedly, and each time I’ve come a little closer to fully grasping them. The last week has hammered one of those lessons home to me.

Sleep. It’s as vital to keeping us well, psychically and emotionally, as breathing, eating and drinking. We cannot function without sleep. Missing a few hours here and there isn’t going to do any lasting damage, but consistently missing sleep? For me at least, the wheels fall off within days, and usually quite spectacularly.

Without a decent amount of sleep, I lose the ability to think clearly. Emotions are extremely heightened and I’m far more likely to be anxious and depressed. I get snappy and irritable. I’m reactive and indecisive. I make other bad choices – I eat what’s easy and comforting (read: noodles and sugar), I drink far too much tea, not enough water, and in possibly the greatest irony that comes with being overtired, I can’t sleep. That's possibly as a result of the noodle/sugar/tea combination, or the increased anxiety, or the pressure I feel because I know I have to sleep.

Have you ever had one of those nights where you lie in bed clocking the number of hours left till you have to get up, reminding yourself over and over again of how tired you’ll be tomorrow? That’s what I mean by pressure to sleep. It’s probably as helpful as shouting at someone at the height of a moment of anger that they calm down.

Reading the signs 

Difficulty sleeping is a symptom of depression, but, as with everything else I’ve learned over the last year, it’s not because of depression the illness. It’s not a symptom in the way that a runny nose is an inevitable and unavoidable part of a cold. It’s indicative of something much deeper.

One of the many things I’ve learned about depression and anxiety is that if I don’t allow myself time and space in the day to really look at what is causing the difficult emotion in the first place, then I will not be able to sleep. Why? Because chances are, I’ll have spent the day distracting myself in some way, consciously or otherwise, from thinking. I’ll be online, watching TV, busy with the kids, with housework... Whatever it is that will keep me away from actually feeling what the problem is.

So, when I get into bed at night, those distractions are gone. I’ll have spent the day dreaming of sleep and escaping from the turmoil in my head, but when I try? Nothing. My mind starts racing. Why? Because my brain wants to sort out these problems, and the only way it can do that is by thinking on them.

It happens at night because this is the first distraction free moment it’s had to actually do any thinking. When and if I do eventually fall asleep, it will usually be into vivid and disturbing dreams. Why? Because my brain is still working, still trying to figure stuff out. So I wake in the morning feeling just as bad if not worse than the night before, because not only have I had very little sleep, whatever time I did manage wasn’t restful.

Breaking the cycle

It's an unbelievably vicious cycle, and one that’s so hard to break. This last week, I’ve been struggling to sleep. I’ve been very preoccupied with old, deep rooted issues that have been coming up in therapy, and it’s meant that in the evening, when ideally I would be winding myself down, I ended up doing the exact opposite.

I’ve been hopping about between Facebook, Twitter, and my blog. I’ve been carrying on multiple online conversations, often at the same time. I’ve had tea far too late in the evening because I want some comfort. And then without giving my brain any time whatsoever to switch off, I’ve been jumping into bed and expecting sleep to come immediately.

Needless to say, it turned into quite a difficult week.

Of course sleep wasn’t happening – I wasn’t doing anything to encourage it to happen. A decent night time routine is the difference between the potential for a quality night’s sleep, and a night of tossing and turning.

It’s even more important for me right now as I have recently stopped (after a very slow and medically approved taper) taking a medication that helped me to sleep. I’ve been taking this particular drug, and completely reliant on it for sleep, for almost 5 years, so over the period of time that I was tapering, I also had to pretty much train myself how to sleep again. How? By doing the things I’ve been resisting doing for years. By recognising that there actually is quite a lot of sense to all the advice I’ve been given.

So after a remarkably tough week, and having hit a level of exhaustion yesterday that rendered me pretty much non-functioning, I took myself in hand last night. I knocked my phone off, completely, around 8pm. I was in bed by 9. I read for a while to settle myself, and once the light was off, did some of the deep breathing exercises that have been recommended to me, for literally years.

Fun story? I slept. All night.

I still had some strange dreams, there’s still stuff to work on for sure, but I slept, and the difference in how I feel today is phenomenal. Yesterday, I could have been persuaded to believe depression the illness was coming back. Today? Today I know that it’s within my power to help myself.

Believing in depression the illness was so dis-empowering for me over the years. It made me believe that I couldn’t sleep because of a chemical imbalance, so there was no point in trying and I got caught in a horrendous tailspin over and over again.

Caring for yourself

Looking after ourselves is hard work. It’s far easier not to, in the short term at least. But had I continued the cycle of the last few days, there’s not a doubt in my mind I would have ended up feeling depressed again. Not because of a chemical imbalance, but because I would have lost the ability for perspective, rational thought, self-care and self-compassion, through exhaustion.

Depression the feeling is real. Depression the illness is not.

I feel I need to reiterate something I’ve said many times before. Having this knowledge is powerful and liberating, it’s made the difference between feeling I have no future, to knowing that in fact I do. But I couldn’t have done it alone. It keeps coming back to this one simple, yet impossibly complex notion.

We, as a society, need a complete rethink and overhaul in our understanding and treatment of mental health difficulties. Until that happens? Depression will continue to be a dis-empowering, life destroying illness.

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Fiona Kennedy writes regularly about mental health issues on her blog sunnyspellsandscatteredshowers.org. You can also find her on Facebook and Twitter

If you are affected by any of the issues raised in this article you can contact Samaritans free any time from any phone on 116 123 or visit www.samaritans.ie to find details of your nearest branch. You can also find online information at www.yourmentalhealth.ie