We’ve all woken up grumpy after a short night of sleep, but did you know getting enough sleep is a form of mental self-care? Here’s why.
As the days grow longer, it’s easy to linger outside after our regular bedtime. But what happens when we shortchange our sleep? This month we’ll focus on the importance of getting enough sleep for our mental, academic, physical, and spiritual well-being.
Staying Well Caffeinated
“Where’s the coffee? I need coffee,” my daughter said, her staccato words rattling my peaceful morning.
“Sure,” I said, “it’s in the cupboard above the microwave. All I have is decaf, though.”
“Coffee, any coffee will do until I can make it to the store and buy some of the real stuff,” she chirped.
“Why the sudden need for coffee?” I asked.
“I was up all night painting!”
“Cool,” I said, “can I see what you painted?” After watching Sarah drag around the house deep in depression, I rejoiced at her improved mood.
“As soon as I have my coffee,” she promised.
I thought little of the incident, until I realized Sarah had started spending multiple nights awake and painting or drawing in her room. During the day, she volunteered as a teacher’s aide. I started worrying if she was getting enough sleep.
“I’m fine, Mom,” she assured me. “I take naps now and then.”
It turns out Sarah wasn’t fine. Her inability to sleep but still seem perky should have alerted me to a deeper issue. How well we sleep, or don’t sleep, can signal a mood disorder, a health problem, or a slew of other possibilities.
We know people suffering from depression sleep a lot. But we may not realize lack of sleep or insomnia can signal other health issues as well. According to Dr. Lawrence Epstein, Medical Director of Sleep Health Centers and an instructor at Harvard Medical School, “People who have problems with sleep are at increased risk for developing emotional disorders—depression and anxiety.”
The Mental Health Benefits of Getting Enough Sleep
Any new parent can attest to the brain fog and numb feelings that accompany the birth of a child. But researchers have discovered how even a week of reduced sleep can affect our mood and functioning. Even if we don’t have a newborn baby in the house for our excuse.
A 1997 study showed how cumulative sleep loss impaired mental functioning, mood, cognitive skills, and motor skills. Participants had their sleep restricted to 4-5 hours a night and by the second day had started to feel the effects. Furthermore, the effects lasted for up to two weeks after the sleep deprivation.
The major self-care benefit of getting enough sleep has to do with our ability to self-regulate our emotions. According to The Sleep Foundation, restful sleep has “profound effects on emotional and mental health.”
So, if you feel tired, cranky, grumpy, irritable, depressed, anxious, foggy, despondent, hopeless, or unable to cope, maybe you need to assess your sleep habits.
1. Do You Get Enough Sleep?
According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), if you’re over 18, you still need 7-9 hours of sleep a night. About a year ago I set of goal of getting more sleep each night. I needed to know if I could blame my grumpy moods and short temper on hormonal changes or sleep deprivation. According to my FitBit and later Apple Watch, I averaged only six hours of sleep a night.
I’m no scientist, but I did discover my ability to cope with daily life in a balanced way improved as I started to get at least 7-8 hours of sleep each night. Become a student of your sleep and your moods. You could keep a sleep and mood diary or take a sleep assessment online. This one by WedMd has some great advice.
2. Do You Get Quality Sleep?
Ask yourself whether or not you have high-quality sleep. If you toss and turn, snore a lot, grind your teeth, gasp for air, or wake up frequently, you don’t have quality sleep.
We thought we’d figured out the perfect sleep routine for our youngest daughter because she slept 8-10 hours a night at three weeks old. We patted ourselves on the back as we listened to her sweet snores as an infant.
As she got older, she continued to need long hours of sleep each night and often napped during the day. By the time she turned five, she needed a palatal expander and braces. Her cute snores had turned louder, and sometimes even woke us up at night. We wondered why she had bags under her eyes even though she slept so much. She often felt frustrated and grumpy.
Not until she turned seven, did we discover she had giant adenoids causing all of her other sleep and mouth problems. We could have saved thousands of dollars on braces if only we’d known that enlarged adenoids decreased her quality of sleep and forced her to sleep with her mouth open. Which in turn kept her palate from expanding naturally and necessitated braces.
A simple tonsillectomy and adenoidectomy stopped the snoring and improved her energy levels. Her overall mood improved, too.
If you feel you suffer from poor sleep quality, seek medical advice. Who knows? Maybe you have an underlying medical condition preventing you from getting quality sleep. These four questions will help you decide if you’re getting enough sleep.
3. Do You Have Good Sleep Hygiene?
As a kid, my parents just told me to go to bed every night. It worked. Until I learned to read. Once I could read, I’d often stay up late to finish a story. We played outside a lot, only watched an hour of television a week, and no one had ever heard of personal computers, much less cell phones.
When we had kids, we read up on the importance of bedtime routines. We had bath time, family worship, prayer, and stories. Until our kids learned to read. At that point, we gave them small bedside lamps and told them they could stay up as late as they wanted to read, but they had to turn their lamps off and wake up on their own. They played outside a lot, watched two hours of television a week, and only used computers only for schoolwork. They didn’t get smartphones until college.
In other words, sleep hygiene didn’t matter much back in the day. But the rise of electronics and their light-emitting properties has changed our world forever.
4. Do You Think You Don’t Need Much Sleep?
Most of us learn to operate on reduced minutes or hours of sleep—but that doesn’t mean it’s good for us. Our minds and bodies need a certain, preset number of sleep cycles to reset and refresh us mentally and emotionally.
If you have one of the two natural gene mutations that promote short sleep, you can get away with 5-6 hours a night. Your body will get the required number of sleep cycles in. But don’t fool yourself. Very few people have one of these gene mutations (see more here).
Sleep deprivation occurs any time your preset need for sleep isn’t met. According to Ying-Hui Fu, Ph.D., and professor of neurology and a member of the SCSF Weill Institute for Neurosciences, most people are sleep deprived. If your body needs nine hours and you give it seven, “You’re more likely to suffer from cardiovascular disease, cancer, dementia, metabolic problems and a weakened immune system.”
What is a Bidirectional Relationship?
Bidirectional relationship just means a two-way street. We thought Sarah’s inability to sleep odd but didn’t realize it signaled the start of an almost catastrophic manic episode. Treating her insomnia probably would have lessened the effects and heartbreak of her manic episode. But we didn’t know that. We didn’t even realize she had bipolar disorder.
For a long time, people saw sleep disorders as a result of mood disorders. Now, they understand not getting enough sleep can also cause or worsen mood disorders. For a full list of the bidirectionality of lack of sleep and mood disorders, check out this post by The Sleep Foundation.
Whatever you do, don’t ignore the mental self-care benefits of getting enough sleep. Your mental health depends on it.Your mental health depends on you getting enough sleep. How much is enough? #sleep #mentalhealth #selfcare Click To Tweet
Come back next week and learn about the academic self-care benefits of getting enough sleep.