No matter how tough we think we are, most of us will likely experience an event that triggers some form of depression during our lifetime. Fortunately, studies on the link between sleep and depression have shown that good sleep habits can greatly improve mood and brain chemistry, and I’m happy to say that you can make some specific improvements to your daily routine that will help you sleep better—and, in turn, improve your mental health.
The intense sadness of depression can feel overwhelming and throw your whole life off kilter. If it persists, the myriad of debilitating symptoms creates a vicious downward spiral that can affect your ability to eat, sleep, think, and function normally. However, speaking from personal experience, I can tell you that improving your sleep habits may be the key to turning your mood around.
Whether your sleep is interrupted by periods of insomnia (as mine was during a period of high anxiety) or your depression triggers over-sleeping and lethargy instead, a stable sleep routine can work wonders for your mental health. This fact is backed up by the latest research into human sleep stages. Of course, when it comes to falling asleep, this is easier to say than to do. (Maybe that’s why my yoga instructor likes to remind me that it’s called “falling asleep” for a reason.) Hard as it may be for you to fall asleep, try employing these five tips to make it easier.
#1. Create the right environment for sleep.
Your bedroom should be a calming, quiet environment that your mind and body associate purely with sleep. Do whatever you can to block out unhelpful stimulus like noise and light. Try investing in blackout blinds, eye masks, ear plugs, white noise generators, or other sleep-inducements. For example, when I bought myself a more cushioned, ergonomically designed mattress and pillow set to suit my body, I noticed a huge difference in my quality of sleep.
#2. Stick to a regular sleep schedule.
Timing is also an important factor to consider. If your depression manifests in hypersomnia, maintaining a regular schedule throughout the week (including weekends) makes waking up in the morning all the easier. I always aim to go to bed and wake up at the same time each day, with a goal of getting between seven to nine hours of sleep per night. This sleep routine significantly increases my energy levels and ability to focus during the day. In turn, I have a far better chance of staying positive and productive throughout my day.
#3. Establish a regular bedtime routine.
Preparing a regular routine around bedtime is another great way to improve your chances of easily falling asleep, and it goes hand in hand with a keeping a consistent bedtime schedule, as mentioned above. My routine is to go to sleep at 10 p.m., but I start preparing for bedtime at 9 p.m. At my designated cut-off time, I stop responding to work emails and scrolling through my social media. This is important because the blue light emitted by our screens limits the production of the body’s fundamental sleep-inducing hormone, melatonin. Instead, I indulge in calming routines like tucking in to my favorite author’s latest novel, enjoying a soothing cup of chamomile tea, or attending to the physical aches and pains of the day with some meditative yoga and a hot bath.
#4. Get plenty of exercise and fresh air.
Speaking of aches and pains, getting enough exercise and fresh air can help your body and mind start working together. Taking advantage of your body’s natural response to the vitamin D it receives from the sun and the endorphins it produces during exercise will help you feel less anxious, which in turn will help you fall asleep. Exposing yourself to sunlight and tiring yourself out physically—which may mean a long, brisk walk or, if you’re like me, a 5k run in the park on your lunch break—will help your body re-synchronize with its natural circadian rhythms.
#5. Avoid caffeine and alcohol.
And lastly, though it is tempting to drink a cup of coffee when you’re feeling low or unwind with a glass of wine at the end of a long day, try to resist. Caffeine is a known stimulant that can disrupt sleep. Likewise, alcohol reduces sleep quality by blocking the all-important REM stage of sleep. Take a leaf from my book—if you really can’t go without your favorite tipple, find a decaf or alcohol-free version that tastes just as good but doesn’t come with the undesirable side effects.
There are many different ways of treating depression, including antidepressants and psychological tools such as cognitive behavioral therapy. However, many of us ignore one of the single-most impactful factors of our day-to-day routine that is within our control. When we prioritize our sleep, we can significantly alter our outlook for the better. For me, using the aforementioned methods to improve my sleep hygiene was the turning point in my life. However, while attending to your sleep habits can make a world of difference, please know that you can take advantage of many other resources should your condition persist. Always talk to somebody, and don’t be afraid to ask your doctor for further advice.
Images from iStock/demaerre (main), Prostock-Studio(post).