Irregular sleep patterns are a frequent symptom of depression. The National Institute of Mental Health cites “insomnia, early-morning wakefulness, or excessive sleeping” on its list of depression symptoms. A similar list from the Mayo Clinic cites “sleep disturbances, including insomnia or sleeping too much”.
Not sleeping enough and sleeping too much may sound like opposite problems, but they’re two sides of the same coin. Many depression sufferers experience both problems: difficulty getting a solid block of deep, satisfying sleep at night, followed by lethargy, fatigue and excessive napping during the day. A good night’s sleep is essential to your physical and emotional health, and depression makes it more difficult to achieve that.
Depression can throw you into a negative feedback loop. Depression causes irregular sleep patterns; irregular sleep screws up your body chemistry and causes depression. You fall into bad habits, and depression saps you of the energy and willpower to set things right.
Erratic sleep has been a big problem for me. When my depression gets bad, I’ll go to bed at midnight one night, then 3:30 AM the next night. I’ll wake up in the middle of the night overwhelmed by negative thoughts, then nap off and on all afternoon, making it that much harder to fall asleep the next night.
Depression is both mental and physical. It’s a disorder of mood, emotions and thoughts, but it’s also a disorder of body chemistry. Negative feelings have physical bases, and targeting those physical bases can improve one’s emotional states. One big theme of Smash Depression will be the importance of taking action on the physical bases of depression, cultivating healthy lifestyle habits, tuning your body chemistry and breaking those negative feedback loops. Antidepressant drugs are great, but you can complement (or sabotage) their effects through lifestyle choices.
Reversing bad habits takes work, but making the effort is essential. Taking control of your sleep patterns and cultivating positive sleep habits can have a huge positive impact.
Tips for Healthy Sleep
Try to go to bed and wake up around the same time every day. Developing and sticking to a sleep routine can have a positive effect for many reasons. Body and mind like consistency.
Avoid caffeine in the 4-6 hours before going to bed. This may seem obvious, but if caffeinated beverages are a big part of your life (like mine) this factor can be easy to overlook. There’s a lot of science showing that moderate coffee intake can be good for your mental health. You won’t hear Smash Depression badmouthing coffee. But drinking anything caffeinated too close to bedtime can definitely cause trouble falling asleep
Avoid alcohol before bed. This seems less obvious. Drinking alcohol might help you fall asleep in the short term. However, alcohol negatively affects your ability to achieve the deepest, most satisfying sleep. Alcohol can also exacerbate middle-of-the-night waking and insomnia.
Avoid late-night meals. Eating too much right before bed, especially rich or spicy foods, can make it difficult to fall asleep. This has been one of my worst habits, post-midnight comfort food that leaves me feeling queasy when I try to drift off.
Turn off glowing screens an hour before bed. This includes television, videogames, computers. In general, you want to avoid excessive mental or visual stimulation right before going to bed. Give yourself a buffer time to relax and wind down.
Some research even shows that reading on backlit e-readers or tablets can be overstimulating right before sleep. If you like to read in bad before drifting off, sticking to non-backlit readers or old-fashioned paper books might help.
Exercise during the day. This makes a big difference for me. If I’ve had a good exhausting workout during the day, I almost always sleep better that night. However, exercising right before bedtime can be counterproductive, leaving your body and mind too revved up. Try to leave at least 4 hours between workout and bedtime.
Limit your napping. Moderate napping can be healthy, but excessive stay-in-bed napping can be counterproductive. Try to limit your daytime naps to 20-30 minutes. Even if you had trouble sleeping the night before, you’re better off trying to get some exercise and sunlight during the day, which in turn might help you sleep better the next night.
More Reading on Sleep and Depression
If you’re trying to take control of your sleep patterns and improve your sleep habits, there’s a great deal of useful literature nowadays. Some articles available online:
Tracey Marks, the author of Master Your Sleep, has many short free articles on her website.
Students Against Depression: Sorting out sleep patterns