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Sleep Hygiene For Anxiety & Depression

Photo by Jordan Bauer on Unsplash

If you struggle with anxiety or depression, chances are you also struggle with getting a good sleep at night. In fact, sleep difficulties are not uncommon on their own. From difficult falling asleep, to frequent waking, early waking, oversleeping, nightmares, or just not feeling rested, one-in-three Canadians report poor sleep quality.

With anxiety and depression added to the mix, sleep can become a nightly battle. During the day, you may experience temporary relief from your woes and worries through the distraction of chores and activities. When the external world quiets at night, bedtime becomes an opportunity for those woes and worries to flood back in for their time in the spotlight, ultimately disturbing your sleep.

The irony is that sleep deprivation further contributes to anxiety and depression by making you more fatigued, irritable, and less motivated, throughout the day. This intimate connection between sleep and mental health is why a combination of sleep hygiene and coping skills are encouraged to promote overall wellness. Here are some ideas to help you break the cycle:

Promote Relaxation for Bedtime:

When negative thoughts and emotions are stimulated in bed, your body receives a signal that it is under threat. Once under threat, it will kick processes into gear that prioritize wakefulness over sleep: thoughts racing, problem solving, alertness, startled waking, a fast heartbeat, and restless limbs, are just some of the symptoms you may experience. The aim is to turn that fight-or-flight system off. Here are ways to feel more settled:

  1. Engage in relaxing rituals before and during bedtime. Some ideas include: meditating, practicing deep breathing, reading a calming book, listening to a sound machine, recalling fond memories, or having a warm cup of milk/tea (no caffeine).

  2. If thoughts about the week’s tasks come up, try writing them down on a list at your bedside. This relieves your mind of feeling the pressure to continually think about the task in order to complete it. Believe you will attend to the list when you can actually do something about it.

  3. It is important that while you are aiming to relax, you are not “trying hard” or expecting to fall asleep. The waiting game (such as watching the clock) can produce more anxiety when you feel you are “failing” at your goal. Relieve some pressure by telling yourself that you will simply lie in bed for half-an-hour. If you’ve passed the mark, leave your room to engage in a relaxing activity and return to bed half-an-hour later. Repeat the process over again until you fall asleep.

  4. Regardless of the time of day, your bed should only be associated with activities that are relaxing. If you find activities like watching Netflix, eating, and having sex in bed, stimulating, you may be teaching your body to associate your bed with wakefulness.

  5. Lastly, just because bedtime is not the right time for woes and worries, does not mean that you should not work through them at another time. Consider processing through your thoughts and feelings later by setting aside time to write in a journal, talk to a friend, or go to counselling.

Establish a New Wakeup Time with Rewarding Activities to Look Forward to:

Maybe you don’t experience difficulty falling asleep, or once you do, it is difficult to get up. For many, thoughts and emotions can be so overwhelming that sleep seems better than getting out of bed. But staying in bed can make you feel lethargic throughout the day. In addition, the longer you stay in bed, the more energy you have at night to experience what you may have been trying to avoid in the first place. This all works to feed the cycle of depression/anxiety, and late waking. Here is what you should consider to help you break this cycle:

  1. Commit to waking up at the same time every day, avoid naps during the day, and only head to your bed when you’re sleepy. Expect this commitment to be difficult the first few days. You are working to retrain your body onto a new sleep schedule.

  2. Plan rewarding activities to look forward to in the day. The benefits are threefold: activities provide you with more motivation to get out of bed, they foster pleasurable experiences that alleviate anxiety/depression, and they tire you out so you’re sleepier by bedtime. Ideas include cooking a new recipe, going for a walk, and socializing with friends. Just make sure to avoid stimulating activities 2-3 hours before bed.

Allow yourself patience as you retrain your mind and body for a new routine. Maybe some techniques are not for you, and that’s okay. Know that it will be a trial-and-error process to figure out what works. Take pride that your efforts show you believe in a better future for your mental and physical health!

Written by Victoria Sabo, PITC Therapist. Learn More about Victoria.

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