Sleep is much like gravity; in that it is an integral part of life and our existence and yet it is still not fully understood.
When placed in an MRI machine different parts of the brain can be seen lighting up, busying away while we snooze, our bodies do quiet repair work while we slumber, we feel healthier and full of energy after a good night’s sleep, and conversely the lack of decent sleep can leave us feeling terrible.
Not only is it harder to concentrate when we are knackered, prolonged overtiredness can also start to affect us physically. As with a lot of health issues, mental health is often put on the back burner and we find that it is only when our bodies start to ring alarm bells that we actually pay attention to what isn’t quite right.
But it shouldn’t take falling asleep at the wheel (quite literally in some instances) for us to make sure we are treating our sleep patterns with the respect they deserve and command. Lack of sleep can often trigger unregulated moods, feeling snappy, irritable and confused, as well as making our ability to cope with stressful situations that much more difficult.
While lack of sleep can make us feel terrible, both mentally and physically, it can also be a marker of other mental health issues that may be bubbling under the surface. Depression is often characterised by an inability to feel invigorated, even if the sufferer is actually sleeping more than usual. This lethargy can make even the simplest of tasks feel impossible and so the vicious cycle of feeling too tired to proactively improve one’s mental health is followed by the very real feeling of just wanting to hibernate.
In times where exhaustion sets in it is important to cast an eye over what is going on for you in this specific time of your life- is there the chance that work or relationships around you draining all of your energy, is your diet deficient in vitamins such as B12 or iron which can present in a general lethargy, is your body and brain running on anxiety which can only be sustained for so long before exhausting us?
Often life can become such a bombardment of worries, whether it is the current cost of living, job insecurity, bereavement, illness or relationships which take their toll on your time and resources. Some of us are still grappling with unresolved trauma which leaves us in a fight or flight mode which is not maintainable for long periods of time. Taking steps to calm this instinctual part of the brain can go a long way to restoring energy levels and ability to sleep at night.
Often struggling to get to sleep can be a result of lingering anxiety from the day and it is better in these instances to try and focus on relaxing, whether that is by using breathing techniques, emptying your mind by journalling or listening to calming music, than focus specifically on falling asleep. It is often the case that the more we try to force sleep, the more it evades us, which in turn ramps up the anxiety that tomorrow is already ruined by a bad night’s sleep.
It’s also important in these instances to try and enforce a clear sleep routine and practice good ‘sleep hygiene’. Making sure that you keep to a schedule where you are up and out of bed, reinforcing that being in bed is for sleeping, not just general lolling around in the day can make a marked difference. Trying to go to bed and wake up at a regular time is also important, as it helps to reset our internal circadian rhythm.
Make an effort to try and unwind before bed, if possible stop using screens which can be overstimulating a good half hour or so before you intend to go to sleep- instead try reading, doing light exercise like yoga or listening to music or a podcast.
If you are particularly sensitive it may also be a good idea to limit caffeine in the second half of the day and while a large glass of wine can sometimes do the trick of knocking us out, by the time our bodies metabolise the alcohol we often wake up, meaning that in fact we have another broken night’s sleep
If after adjustments to your sleep routine are still not helping you feel well rested it may be time to turn your attention to the possible psychological factors at play. Often the best way to alleviate stress which is disrupting our sleep patterns is to try to work through just what it is that is keeping us up at night.
If you are suffering from lack of sleep or you are finding that you are struggling to function despite the amount of sleep you are getting, it may be worth getting in touch with a mental health professional who will be able to help you figure out what it is that is troubling you. Sometimes the root cause is not immediately apparent and it may take some digging to find out just what it is that is troubling you.
Here at The Henry Centre we have a number of highly qualified counsellors who are able to guide you through the process of finding out what steps to take to get you feeling back to the best version of yourself.