Of all the lotions, potions and words of wisdom, and everything else used to treat mental illness, one of the best treatments comes down to a simple letter: “Z.” As in, lots of Zzzz’s.
Getting a sound night’s sleep is often just as important as every other piece of advice worth paying attention to: keeping busy, socializing with friends, working, taking medications, exercising.
When a person with mental illness doesn’t sleep well, it’s a problem. Over the years as I’ve met with a variety of doctors, they always ask, “How’s your sleep?”
The days, weeks and months when I do sleep well, my brain works its magic.
I’m happier, calmer and high-functioning. So is everybody else, the argument could be made, regardless of whether they have a mental illness. But sleepless nights, or those filled with nightmares keeping me asleep but my brain awake can trigger stress and a bad mental health day.
I have spent years trying to figure out the best ways to get those badly needed Z’s. I’ve tried different medications, expensive mattresses, listening to relaxing music of birds and rivers. I try to avoid activities such as eating a heavy meal before bed or watching movies, and instead focus on going to bed and waking up at the same time every day to regulate my circadian rhythm.
Family members tell me about their years of light sleeping, during which any little noise wakes them. But for someone with bipolar disorder who is prone to having a chaotic life to begin with, nightly brain rest is key.
I’m not alone with my obsession for a good night’s sleep. Here’s what a Harvard Mental Health Letter has to say: “Chronic sleep problems affect 50 percent to 80 percent of patients in a typical psychiatric practice, compared with 10 percent to 18 percent of adults in the general U.S. population. Sleep problems are particularly common in patients with anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.”
And that’s not all. According to the letter, “Although scientists are still trying to tease apart all the mechanisms, they’ve discovered that sleep disruption — which affects levels of neurotransmitters and stress hormones, among other things — wreaks havoc in the brain, impairing thinking and emotional regulation. In this way, insomnia may amplify the effects of psychiatric disorders, and vice versa.”
Mental Health America, an East Coast-based mental health advocacy organization, has devoted a large portion of its website to promoting good sleep. Here are some of its recommendations:
—Don’t use the computer in bed.
“Good sleep hygiene” is discussed widely in the offices of mental health providers and online. I know what I’m supposed to be doing to promote rest. For me, the best option is to go to bed without worrying about problems I cannot solve. If I’m awake worrying, no sleeping pill or yoga position will change things.
I wish getting some good shut-eye wasn’t so hard.
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