Better Sleep, Better Mental Health, and Vice Versa

We’ve all experienced those sleepless nights: We put our phones down and turn off the light at 11 p.m. only to toss and turn. Each time we check the clock, we mentally count down the hours until our alarms go off — and of course, that only makes it more difficult to fall back asleep.

Then we push through the next day, feeling groggy and dead inside. But when we try to hit the hay earlier the next night, we still struggle. Thus begins a ruthless, tortuous cycle of insomnia. What gives?

Have you been feeling stressed out and down lately? Turns out, your mental health may be having a bigger impact on your ability to sleep than you think.

Are you experiencing ‘early morning awakening’?

One of the first signs of depression and anxiety is when someone’s sleep becomes disrupted, dubbed by doctors as the “early morning awakening,” said Kristine Tatosyan-Jones, a family medicine physician in Nashville.

Illustration of business man meditating above his work desk. Mental Health pbs rewire
Meditation can ease a racing mind and bring you back to the present both when you’re out and about and when you’re in bed.

Low serotonin levels in the brain can make it difficult for us to feel good and focused during the day and sleep soundly at night.

“Mental illness and sleep play important roles with respect to each other,” said Jack Springer, assistant professor of emergency medicine at the Zucker School of Medicine at Hofstra/Northwell. “The most clear-cut example is the relationship between anxiety and sleep.”

The relationship is twofold: anxious rumination — or continuous, uncontrollable thoughts — make it difficult to fall asleep in the first place, and that sleep deprivation can compound anxiety in our brains.

“This becomes a vicious cycle resulting in more fatigue and anxiety symptoms,” Springer said.

Depression also causes hypersomnia, which is sleeping too much. Since depression and anxiety aren’t mutually exclusive and actually tend to co-exist, some people are caught in a purgatory between wanting to sleep too much some nights and then struggling to fall asleep another.

Sleep is essential for mental health

Unfortunately, poor sleep impacts so many aspects of life.

“The brain requires adequate sleep in time and depth to maintain numerous functions including the cleansing of toxins, memory consolidation and regulating endocrine — and thus immune — function,” Springer said. “Sleep is a critical component of overall good health.”

If your restless nights are getting in the way of your day then it might be time to seek out ways to boost your mental health and get some shut-eye again.

1. Ritualize it

Developing a wind-down bedtime routine can help train your body to relax and prepare for rest.

According to Los Angeles-based therapist Saba Lurie, a positive wind-down routine can include turning off electronics an hour before bed, lowering the lights and then meditating at the same time every night. Feel free to customize the routine with your favorite essential oils, caffeine-free teas or scented candles.

On that note, consider creating a wake-up ritual in which you awaken at the same time each morning, stretch and engage with electronics with intention.

“We can help our bodies know when it’s time to rest and recharge and when it’s time to get started in the morning,” Lurie said.

2. Start a journal

Gain control of your brain and your thoughts by starting a journal. In particular, get to writing a gratitude journal.

Studies show that jotting down the good in your life can help boost your mood and give you a stronger connection to yourself and others. There’s no harm in taking five minutes out of your day to list down just a few things you’re grateful for.

On the other hand, if you find yourself tossing and turning with thoughts of a big project coming up or something you just can’t forget to do tomorrow, whip out a journal and give it a good brain dump.

Mike Kneuer, wellness director at outpatient mental health center center The Formula in Boca Raton, Florida, is fond of this method.

“I’ll write down any important tasks for the next day, anyone I needed to talk to or anything else I wanted to remember,” he said. “This process of writing everything down allows your brain to relax and know that you will not forget anything.”

3. Try out guided meditation

Anxiety disorder can make it difficult to block out all the “what ifs” in life. This kind of constant rumination can make it difficult to fall asleep at night and be productive and focused during the day.

Meditation can ease a racing mind and bring you back to the present both when you’re out and about and when you’re in bed.

“For anxiety, I recommend listening to a 10-minute guided meditation before you go to sleep,” Connecticut-based therapist Katie Ziskind said.

“Listening to a guided meditation will calm your mind, slow down your thoughts, and soothe your nervous system to promote a restful sleep. Practice this for a week straight every night and you may start to develop more positive self talk before you go to bed to soothe your anxiety.”

Try to download an app such as Headspace, which has guided meditation specifically for bedtime.

4. Get moving

We’ve all heard that exercise boosts endorphins, which are hormones that reduce pain and make us feel good, but did you know that it also associated with better sleep? Win-win, right?

According to Johns Hopkins Medicine, research proves that regular exercise helps people fall asleep more quickly and also improves your sleep quality.

Researchers don’t know why exactly, but exercise has been shown to increase the amount of slow wave, or deep, sleep your mind gets. This doesn’t mean you have to start running marathons, just 30 minutes of moderate activity could mean a great night’s rest.

Ziskind said someone with depression and hypersomnia could benefit from a daily routine of working out first thing in the morning.

“It will help to increase your inner fire, improve self motivation, and help you create a routine to sleep better at night,” she said.

Kathleen Wong

Kathleen Wong is a Honolulu-based writer with bylines in The Cut, Broadly, Mic, Mashable and more.