How does sleep affect your mental wellness?
While it was almost a century ago that Virginia Woolf famously claimed “one cannot think well, love well or sleep well, if one has not dined well”. We might also suggest to add to this, if one has not slept well! To do things to the best of our ability, sleep is paramount. Within the landscape of mental health, the essence of sleep is fundamental, especially in light of the recent ‘Sealy Sleep Census’*, highlighting the fact that two-thirds of Kiwis wake up every day feeling tired.
Traditionally sleep issues were seen as a symptom of mental health difficulties, and so focusing on the mental health issue could cause a flow-on improvement in sleep. However, in more recent years, we have come to see that the relationship is more bi-directional, there is a connection between sleep and mental health. In other words, poor sleep can cause psychological distress, and it is not just the other way around. The ‘Sealy Sleep Census’ data revealed that 80% of Kiwis reported poor sleep, which resulted in difficulties with their mood or ability to function.
This means that a band-aid approach is no longer enough for sleep concerns, and proactive intervention can assist in the process of curtailing the development of debilitating depression or anxiety.
Within psychology we talk about emotion regulation and the different skills we can use to reduce our vulnerability to negative emotions. This helps reduce the likelihood of us getting into that state of ‘emotional mind’ where our emotions can take over and control our thoughts and actions in unhelpful ways. The key areas we can focus on to do this include regular exercise, balanced eating, managing physical illnesses, building mastery into our days, and reducing our intake of alcohol and drugs. Sleep has traditionally been viewed alongside these areas, with an emphasis on getting enough good-quality sleep. However, instead of considering these as silo, individual factors, it’s perhaps more accurate to start viewing sleep as the umbrella across these dimensions. If we are not sleeping well, it becomes significantly harder to make good decisions about eating and exercising. Similarly, we become vulnerable to using stimulants like coffee and alcohol in unhelpful ways, and it’s more difficult to make the right decisions about managing physical ailments and initiating activities in our day-to-day life. So once again, we see the primary role that sleep psychology plays within mental health, rather than its traditional position as a second-order, flow-on effect.
The importance of sleep across these areas of emotional health becomes even more pronounced in certain areas, like men’s mental health, where there is a current awareness that men respond differently to mental health problems. Research consistently shows that females more commonly report poor sleep and seek treatment for insomnia. In the ‘Sealy Sleep Census’ we saw a similarly skewed response, with more females acknowledging the impact of poor sleep on their emotions and functioning the next day.
International research on depression shows that males tend to be three-times more likely to die by suicide and three-times as likely as women to become dependent on alcohol. Reasons for the gendered discrepancy in help-seeking behaviour tends to multi-faceted. Traditional gender stereotypes can prevent males from showing vulnerability and asking for support; males can sometimes present with different types of symptoms, like anger or irritability. Males also tend to be more likely to reach for alcohol, drugs or other problematic coping behaviours, rather than talking about their concerns. They may also resort more commonly to escapist behaviours as well, such as throwing themselves into their work.
Changing the stigma around mental health, as a weakness, will go a long way in terms of helping men get the right support; however, the onus is not just on the individuals struggling, but also on the health service providers to ensure they are now screening for and opening up conversations about mental health difficulties amongst their male clientele.
Similarly, the current Covid-19 pandemic is seeing an increase in mental health issues, such as anxiety and depression, particularly among front-line workers and high-risk populations across the country (and globe). Contextual factors associated with the pandemic such as working from home and being in isolated states of lockdown, increase the risk of people changing their sleep habits, or not getting sufficient social contact or exercise, which increases their vulnerability to mental health difficulties.