Sleep is one of the pillars of mental health
Insufficient sleep can have a great impact on our daytime functioning – in particular in vital areas such as driving
On average we spend one-third of our lives in bed. Photograph: Getty Images
Each of us spends approximately one-third of our life asleep. In the same way that eating a healthy diet is vital for maintaining good physical health, getting enough sleep is essential for the maintenance of good mental health.
The amount of sleep that we need changes across the lifespan and varies from person to person.
Although we can identify sleep problems in others, it’s not so easy to identify those problems that exist in ourselves. How can you know whether you have a sleep problem or not? Answer this question: Do you sleep well and feel wide awake and energetic all day? If the answer is no, you might be a poor sleeper. But why is it so crucial? It appears that the main purpose of sleep is to allow our brains to restore and regenerate.
Research shows that an area of the brain called the prefrontal cortex – the region that plays a key role in memory and attention – is particularly sensitive to sleep. Not getting enough sleep is associated with a reduced ability to sustain attention, strengthen new memories, and regulate our emotions.
Insufficient sleep can significantly affect our daytime functioning. It reduces vigilance and the speed at which we process information, which results in slower reaction times. This impairs our ability to perform attention-based activities such as driving.
The Road Safety Authority reports that driver fatigue could be a factor in between one and five driver deaths in Ireland. Furthermore, people who don’t sleep enough are more likely to report difficulty in performing workplace duties, and report a higher incidence of work-related accidents.
Sleep disturbances can also affect our mood. Difficulties with sleeping have traditionally been viewed by experts as a symptom of a mental-health problem such as depression or anxiety. However, it is now recognised that consistent sub-optimal levels of sleep may also directly contribute to the development and recurrence of these disorders.
In some cases medication may help to treat the symptoms of insomnia – the most common sleep complaint – but this is generally only recommended for short-term use and does little to address the underlying cause of the problem.
Psychological and behavioural treatments for insomnia can help patients to change negative expectations, and build more confidence that they can have a good night’s sleep. For example, there is consistent evidence that cognitive behavioural therapy is associated with improvements in 70 per cent of patients with insomnia.
There are some “sleep hygiene” tips that can teach us to sleep better. These include maintaining a regular sleep and wake schedule, using the bedroom only for sleep, and keeping the room dark and free of distractions.
Most importantly, make sleep a priority. It’s time to wake up and recognise that sleep is one of the pillars of maintaining good mental health. In order to reflect this, it’s vital that we ensure to schedule sleep in to our daily routine, just like we would schedule any other daily activity.
Olga Lee is a research assistant working in Trinity College Institute of Neuroscience and with Health Founders.