With the arrival of the cold and flu season, many people find themselves in need of more rest. For others, a sense of overload and fatigue from busy work and personal lives marks the halfway point of the year. However, at a time when we need rest, sleep can be elusive, often due to stress.
Impact of Stress Prolonged stress can have a negative impact on a person’s physical and mental well-being, affecting the immune system, mental clarity and emotional stability. If left unchecked, the “wear and tear” can lead to more serious effects – including hypertension, metabolic disturbances, anxiety and depression. Stress can cause irritability, impacting relationships at home and at work. In this way, stress can be contagious as others pick up on our negative emotions.
Since stress is a fact of life, it is worth paying attention to a few basic principles, to provide a buffer against its potentially harmful effects.
Importance of Sleep
Despite its critical importance, sleep has been somewhat of a casualty of our technological, 24/7 society. Studies show that roughly one-third of people are not getting enough sleep, and many suffer from insomnia (difficulty getting off to sleep and staying asleep) and other sleep disorders.
Yet sleep is crucial to our physical and mental health. Even though the body rests during sleep, the brain is incredibly active. The brain uses the body’s off-peak time to take care of a range of vital functions, including cell repair, brain detox and immune system maintenance.
According to the National Sleep Foundation, school-aged children need from 9-11 hours of sleep per night, teenagers need 8-10 hours and adults need an average of 8 hours. Any sleep loss (even up to 1 hour) accumulates into a sleep debt that must be repaid. Insufficient sleep has been linked to obesity and other health issues.
Taking a look at some of the functions of sleep can help us to understand why we should pay more attention to it.
During sleep, a process called memory consolidation takes place, whereby new information, such as learning, is transferred into long-term memory, to enable it to be recalled as needed. In other words, memories, and therefore new skills, are enhanced during sleep. Being able to recall information is fundamental to performance at school and work. Loss of sleep impairs our ability to focus, to think clearly and to balance our mood.
Studies have also shown that when you are sleep-deprived, you form more memories of negative events in your life than positive ones, leaving you with a potentially biased memory for past events. People suffering from depression tend to remember more negative events than positive ones, often leaving them with a sense of failure and regret. There is a strong link between sleep disturbance and mental illness, including anxiety and depression.
Good Sleep Habits Maintaining good sleep hygiene can make a huge difference to the quality of your sleep and overall well-being:
Maintain regular sleep and wake times in line with typical night and daylight hours. This includes rising at the same time each day.
Keep your sleep environment technology-free – no electronic devices.
Keep your bedroom dark, quiet and comfortable.
Avoid mental stimulation (especially from electronic devices) before sleep.
Avoid alcohol and stimulants such as caffeine and nicotine. Although alcohol may induce sleepiness, it causes sleep disruption such as early-morning waking.
There are times, even with the best of sleep habits, when sleep can be elusive as we experience challenges and difficulties that play on our mind.
Worrying is like being on a mental roundabout where you can’t find the exit. Worrying in bed also creates a negative cue whereby when our head hits the pillow it signals the mind to become active. A strategy to interrupt this cue is to replace worry thoughts with more neutral thoughts, more conducive to sleep. For example, allowing your thoughts to become absorbed in the warmth and comfort of your bed can help your mind to quieten. Relaxing physically can also help your mind orient to sleep.
To find out more, including how to train your children into healthy sleep habits, see www.mindinsight.com.au/healthysleep
Anne Ward is principal psychologist of Mindinsight, providing evidence-based psychology services to adults, children and adolescents. Mindinsight is located in the T&G Building at 45 Hunter Street Newcastle. Visit www.mindinsight.com.au for more information.