Everyone knows sleep is good for mental health. Go to any “Health and Wellbeing Tips”, “Anxiety Coping Strategies”, etc., and a good night’s sleep will always be at the top of the list alongside healthy diet, exercise, no caffeine/alcohol and all the other usual culprits.
I’ve experienced this first-hand in the last week or so. Last week, I didn’t get much sleep at all and my mental health was terrible. I mean really, really awful – I had my first full-blown panic attack (I thought I’d had them before; turns out I hadn’t!) and I just generally felt as though the world was ending. The last three nights, though, I’ve had plenty of sleep and I feel So. Much. Better. Not perfect, but 1000 times better than I did this time last week.
I know what a lot of people will be thinking in response to the above: we know sleep is important. We know we need it in order to function properly and (for any readers who are fellow sufferers of anxiety) in order to let the brain’s energy go into maintaining a calm, stable equilibrium rather than working to keep us awake, which means the anxiety demons are free to run riot with nothing to stop them.
But raise a [metaphorical] hand if you’re utterly sick of hearing how important sleep is, when it’s often something that’s so out of our control. I get selective insomnia, meaning that no matter how tired I may be, sometimes my body just refuses to let me sleep. I had this the other night – I was exhausted all day (from several nights of not sleeping well, ironically) and I had a full day of interviews in London. So by the time I got into bed, I was confident that surely, tonight, I’d fall asleep quickly and sleep well. Not so. Despite having spent the majority of the day struggling to stay awake, when I got into bed I was suddenly full of adrenaline and, no matter what I did, I just couldn’t seem to fall asleep.
For me, hearing how important sleep is for my mental health just makes it all worse. If I could ensure that I got eight hours sleep a night without fail, I would. But it’s just not always in my control and so hearing experts going on and on about how crucial sleep is to a balanced mental state just makes me stress even more. I lie awake at night, worrying not only about how tired I’m going to be the next day but also about how bad my anxiety will be. As you can imagine, not exactly ideal conditions for drifting off.
Last week especially, I actually felt incredibly angry at my body. I wanted to say, “I will do anything you want in order not to feel anxious. I’ll eat healthily, do plenty of exercise, stay away from alcohol and caffeine, go to yoga, use the Headspace app every day, stay off social media for a few days and anything else that might help. But beyond going to bed at a reasonable time, sleep is something I just can’t control – so can’t you just help me out a bit here?!”
So what’s the answer? Again, everyone already knows. Just stop worrying! Stop caring about whether you sleep well or not, stop fretting about lying awake – just stop thinking about it altogether, and you’ll be sure to drift off. All things that plenty of people have said to me many times…and my response has always been (as I’m sure will be the same for anyone reading this who struggles with the same thing): HELPFUL. (In case it wasn’t clear, that was sarcastic.)
“Just stop worrying about it” is never an answer for a worrier! So, accepting that the worry is there and that said worry will prevent you sleeping, what are the best steps to take? Firstly, without resorting to sleeping pills, there are a couple of things you can take to send the midnight adrenaline on its merry way. Camomile tea does help, to a certain extent – it has a (very mild) sedative effect and should help to calm the mind. Magnesium tablets are also great. They’re just a basic vitamin that you can buy in any Boots or health food store, but they do something to the nervous system that helps the body shut down for the night. I think it’s linked to the muscles…it helps the body release tension and persuades the muscles to relax, which then sends a message to the brain that you’re relaxed (or something along those lines…more info available on the packaging/online if my incredibly vague/possibly incorrect explanation isn’t very helpful!).
The above solutions don’t always work for me, though, in which case I’ve always found the best thing to do is just confront the fear head on, by asking: what’s the worst that can happen? Ok, I won’t sleep at all. I’ll be incredibly tired and possibly incredibly anxious as well – but at least I’ll know it’s linked to sleep. It’s amazing what your body can do when it comes to getting you through a difficult day, and knowing there’s a reason for any anxiety you’re experiencing (whether it’s linked to sleep, hormones, hangover or something else) is often the first step to feeling better!
Sleep is a wonderful, amazing thing – but it can also be a source of immense stress and frustration. To anyone struggling with a similar issue, my advice would be: stay away from articles/essays/books on how important sleep is for mental and physical health. In my experience, I have never, ever found them reassuring. Chances are you already know the fundamentals (as I’ve said above: yes, we know it’s important!) and any new information about all the negative effects lack of sleep can have on your brain and body will probably only make you worry more.