Difficulty getting quality sleep is one of the most prevalent symptoms of depression. This can include insomnia, having trouble falling asleep or staying asleep, or hypersomnia, which is sleeping too much and having trouble getting out of bed.
According to the National Sleep Foundation, “The relationship between sleep and depressive illness is complex – depression may cause sleep problems and sleep problems may cause or contribute to depressive disorders.”
The bottom line is that when our sleep gets disrupted, it has a ripple effect on other parts of our lives. We feel irritable, have low energy, and have difficulty concentrating or staying engaged in our daily lives. We might also experience a significant drop in motivation and difficulty accomplishing tasks throughout the day. In either case, disturbances in our sleep can worsen and often perpetuate feelings of depression.
While the relationship between sleep and depression is complex and can feel overwhelming at times, there are proven tactics and habits you can incorporate to improve your sleep and ease your depression.
Why does depression affect our sleep?
Our sleep is governed by an internal body process called our circadian rhythm. This is a daily pattern of hormones and other physiological processes that influence our sleep/wake cycle. Research has suggested that the circadian rhythm is commonly affected in people with depression – “They seem to have the sleep cycle both shifted and disrupted,” said researcher Jun Li, a professor of human genetics at the University of Michigan.
Depressed thought patterns can also impact sleep. Rumination, or repetitive thoughts, is common with depression, and often quiet moments set aside for sleep can become overrun with fears, regrets, and various anxieties that surface. Once these depressive thought patterns get going, they can be difficult to let go of, and suddenly the anxiety about missing sleep can start to compound and make you feel even worse.
So, how can I improve my sleep when I have depression?
Follow these 9 steps to make sure you’re getting the best sleep you can:
- Prioritize getting the right amount of sleep
The first step in improving your sleep is to prioritize it. This can be challenging when you’re busy and feeling overwhelmed with your day to day routine, but sticking to a solid 7-9 hours of sleep per night, experts say, is essential. If you find that you’re sleeping more than this, try setting an alarm, getting yourself up and out of bed, ideally in some sunlight, and get your body moving.
- Follow a consistent sleep/wake schedule
It’s called a circadian “rhythm” for a reason. Our bodies like getting into a nice, consistent pattern of going to bed and getting up around the same time every day. Staying out late on the weekends can throw this rhythm off, so try to keep your sleep/wake schedule consistent throughout the week.
- Practice good sleep hygiene
Simply put, the environment you sleep in matters. Your bedroom should be a comfortable, cool, dark, and quiet space. Blackout shades, eye masks, and ear plugs are all good options. A bed that promotes optimal sleep should include a comfortable mattress and pillows, and the right amount of blankets to keep you warm but not too hot.
- No tv, phone, or tablet in the bedroom
It’s no secret that our various devices and screens stimulate us. They emit a powerful blue light that can actually make our brains think it’s daytime, making it harder to fall asleep. To help your body naturally wind down for the night, make it a practice to stop using devices at least 30 minutes to an hour before bedtime.
- Follow a relaxing bedtime routine, like tea, bath, and reading
Especially in our overstimulating world, it takes time to wind down from our day – we certainly can’t expect our bodies to go from day to night mode with the flip of a switch. Having a calming routine relaxes and trains your body to start getting ready for sleep. Rituals like making a cup of herbal tea, unwinding with a bath or warm shower, or reading a good book before bed are all great ways to quiet the body and mind before bed.
- Only use the bed for sex and sleeping – no other activities
Any time we sit in our bed and do work, talk on the phone, or watch TV, our brains start to associate these stimulating activities with the bedroom. By keeping your bed activities limited to sleep and sex, it helps your brain recognize that bedtime equals sleep time.
- Reduce or eliminate coffee or other caffeine, especially after lunch
Caffeine is a stimulant that is well known to affect sleep and we all have different levels of sensitivity to it. The American Academy of Sleep Medicine recommends that you don’t consume any caffeine at least 6 hours before bedtime. An easy rule is to avoid caffeine after lunch.
- Stop drinking alcohol
Many people love to have a glass of wine to relax at the end of a long day, and while alcohol may make you feel drowsy initially, it’s actually bad for your sleep. Alcohol reduces sleep quality by disrupting sleep patterns and blocking REM sleep, so you ultimately wake feeling less refreshed.
- Try practicing mindfulness, writing your worries down, or CBT
If anxious or depressed thought patterns are making it hard for you to fall asleep or stay asleep, there are several approaches that may help. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) has shown to be effective with insomnia as it can help reduce repetitive negative thoughts, while mindful meditation and writing your worries down can help you come back to the present moment, set your worries aside, and drift off to sleep.
Sleep is critical to our overall health, but especially important when it comes to dealing with depression. According to Brightside Chief Medical Officer Dr. Mimi Winsberg, “Getting good and consistent sleep is a critical part of managing depression. The amount of sleep needed varies from one person to another so it’s important to understand your own personal sleep needs.” Prioritizing good sleep and following these 9 steps will only help you on your journey to feeling better.
Remember that while getting consistently good sleep can help when you’re suffering from depression, it’s only one part of a larger treatment plan. To treat your whole self, you should follow other self care approaches like improving diet, exercise, and reducing stress, as well as consider appropriate clinical approaches such as therapy or medication.
To improve your sleep, you may find these resources helpful.