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Depressed, Anxious, Unable to Focus? Getting Enough Sleep Might Do The Trick – 5 Tips on How

Serene woman sleeping at night in the bedroom

Getting enough sleep may be more important than you think

“It’s 2 a.m. – do you know where your kids are?” (And can you account for where you, as an adult, are?) All of us should have gone to sleep hours before 2 a.m., and yet sleep deprivation is ubiquitous in our modern culture. Our lack of sleep is affecting us negatively: Depression, anxiety, lack of concentration, and overall lessened well-being often are a result of sleep deprivation.

Sleep studies keep coming out, highlighting the relationship between sleep and mental health, and how critical sleep is to protecting our mental and emotional health as well as our overall well-being. Our body appears to recover and regenerate through sleep, especially when it comes to our brain. Sleep has recently been dubbed “the brain’s housekeeper,” as scientists have discovered a tiny network of fluid-filled channels that clear toxins from brain cells, much like that of our cardiovascular lymphatic system, but one that only activates during sleep. Unless the brain sleeps, it cannot get cleaned.

Sleep loss can impact functioning on a variety of levels, and its effects are felt in our homes, schools and businesses. Sleep loss can masquerade as depression in that it produces lethargy, inefficiency, concentration problems, appetite change, and poor behavioral control. Experiencing these effects can suppress one’s mood, and appear and feel a lot like depression. Core characteristics of Major Depression include depressed mood, changes in energy, appetite and sleep, and concentration problems. Anxiety is often a byproduct of sleep deprivation – who hasn’t felt that jittery feeling of not getting enough sleep? For people who are sensitive to anxiety, sleep deprivation can be particularly grueling as its effects increase anxiety, especially for worriers. 

Sleep deprivation in and of itself is terribly damaging to us mentally and physically. It is hard to think of a mental health disorder that isn’t worsened by sleep loss – it is a front line offender towards today’s mental illness. Fatigue’s capacity to elevate, and even masquerade as, depression can be confusing, and challenging. Studies show that shortened sleep almost doubles one’s genetic risk for depression – this is a remarkable finding, and one that is highly clinically relevant. Essentially, if someone has a relative with depression, they double their risk (from roughly 25% to 50%) for having depression when they limit their sleep. Sleep deprivation makes everything harder, mentally and emotionally, and getting enough sleep is one of the core strategies I share with patients.

Even more unsettling are studies linking sleep loss in kids with body fat and obesity, drug and alcohol abuse, and teen depression. Teens in particular are known for being tired and deprived of sleep, especially as academic, social, and extracurricular demands keep them up late, making unrelenting school start times more and more challenging. According to a study entitled, “New links found between sleep duration, depression,” with principal investigator Dr. Robert E. Roberts, professor of behavioral sciences in the School of Public Health at the University of Texas Health Science Center, research suggests that sleep deprivation can be a precursor to depression. Teens’ developing brains are even more susceptible to habit formation, as they often lay down habits for life. That the habit of shortened sleep can risk and entrench depression is highly concerning, and underscores the critical importance of adequate sleep to teen mental and physical health. As parents, I don’t think we can get enough data on how important sleep is for our teens, and yet it is sometimes hard to make better sleep a reality for ourselves as well as our children. 

So how can you make sleep more of a priority?

  1. Resist the urge to push through fatigue and do that “one more thing” especially if it involves a screen. Ignoring drowsy cues is one of the ways that people condition themselves to stay awake, and in so doing create a dangerous cycle of not feeling fatigue. If you struggle to get to sleep, look for the first drowsy cue you feel, and seize it, getting into bed and turning lights off as soon as possible after you feel that fatigue. Stave off that “second wind” and allow sleep to come.
  2. Sleep hygiene is another critical component of getting adequate sleep. Be mindful of stimulation levels of all sorts, visual, auditory, tactile. Prepare for rest by lowering stimulation the hour before you want to sleep. Get in comfortable clothes, turn lights down or off, turn off music, TV, computer, and prepare for bed.
  3. Be particularly mindful of screens. The blue light behind most screens (other than a kindle) is the same frequency as the blue light of dawn, which has been shown to stop the production of serotonin (the neurotransmitter associated with sleep) to prepare for waking. This is the last thing anyone needs who is trying to fall asleep. Opt instead for reading without a screen, with only the most minimal light.  If you must use a screen, then invest in some yellow tinted glasses that will change the light frequency to green and not disrupt serotonin production.
  4. Getting to bed a bit earlier every night is the best way to increase sleep. Start small, and aim for 10-15 more minutes every night.  As little as 15 more minutes a night can make a huge difference overall, adding almost two hours per week. An alarm can be helpful to remind you it’s time to move towards sleep. And remember that a tired brain is an inefficient brain. Don’t expect that you will feel like going to bed when it is time to. It might help to remind yourself that your tired brain doesn’t make as much sense as your rested brain and therefore doesn’t make optimal decisions. Like with our children, chances are if you turn the lights off and put your head on the pillow you will fall asleep and feel more rested in the morning.
  5.  If you have to catch up, do so where you can, but beware of “sleep marathons.” Saving catch up for the weekend can inadvertently throw off sleep, and isn’t advised in general. However, getting more sleep wherever you can is more important than where you get it. Napping (for as little as 10 minutes) has also been shown to help with the cognitive impact of sleep loss.

It’s actually a relief to find out that many common mental, physical, and emotional ailments might be rooted in something as simple as lack of sleep. Implementing a regimen of getting enough sleep can help significantly with depression and anxiety, and allow our brains to function better. Our brains functioning better helps us maintain a positive outlook, and make healthier decisions. All in all, getting enough sleep on a routine basis helps you have more energy, achieve higher productivity, and feel happier. So, do what you can to make sleep a priority – you”ll be at your best by sleeping enough.

Alicia H. Clark, PsyD

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