What is most interesting about the connection between depression and sleep is that the relationship is two-way.
Not only does poor sleep increase the risk of depression, but depression leads to poor sleep (you may have noticed that some people with depression sleep too much and others don’t get enough sleep). The good news is that we can use this two-way relationship to our advantage.
By making a few lifestyle changes at home, we can improve sleep quality and decrease depressive symptoms in the process. Read more about the sleeping disorder insomnia here.
Here are the most effective strategies for improving your quality of sleep.
Stop trying so hard
Have you ever been in bed at night, finding it impossible to fall asleep? The tricky thing about falling asleep is that you’ll never succeed as long as you’re trying to succeed. Frustrating, isn’t it? Falling asleep is an involuntary process and any attempt to control it will make it more difficult. When we put effort into something, we are telling our brains to become more alert – the exact opposite of what we need to do to fall asleep. So, the first step towards better sleep is to stop trying so hard. Here’s how you do it:
- Get out of bed. If you find yourself in bed, not sleeping or having sex – get up! When you stay in bed, tossing and turning and making an effort to fall asleep, the brain will start associating the bed with wakefulness. So, your brain may automatically become aroused every time you approach the bed because it reacts to the bed as a place for activity and struggle. The solution is to get out of bed if you haven’t fallen asleep after about 20 minutes and do something relaxing. Don’t return to bed until you feel sleepy. Also, only use your bed for sleeping. Don’t use it for other activities during the day, such as eating, studying, watching TV etc. If you do, the brain may start associating your place of rest with wakefulness.
- Don’t try to shut off your thoughts. Have you ever wished for a switch inside your head that would turn off all your thoughts? The frustrating thing about worrying thoughts, the to-do list and existential speculations that come up before bedtime, is that when you’re trying to erase them, they usually fight back even harder. This one-minute exercise demonstrates the impossible task of erasing negative thoughts before bedtime:
If we can’t erase disturbing thoughts, what are we supposed to do? All experienced meditators know the secret to calming your mind: Notice your thoughts and let them pass.
The next time your thoughts keep you up at night, get out of bed and do this meditation exercise:
Start unwinding 90 minutes before bedtime
Read, take a shower, listen to relaxing music or do other calming activities for 90 minutes before you go to bed. Make sure you’re not exposed to alarming or new information late at night. An alert brain that has just been exposed to very interesting stimuli, for example, your favourite TV series, needs more time to fall asleep than an already relaxed brain. A tip: Set an alarm for when your unwinding time begins so that you don’t forget to turn off your screens, avoid reading the news, mute your phone etc. If you want, you can try unwinding with this five-minute meditation exercise from Flow Neuroscience:
Give yourself 8 hours of sleep ‘opportunity’ every night
We can’t control exactly how much we sleep, but we can increase the chances of falling asleep by at least giving our bodies an opportunity to sleep for 7-9 hours. So, turn off the TV and go to bed eight hours before you’re supposed to get up.
Have a fixed wake-up time
One thing regarding sleep that we actually can control is when to wake up. Creating a regular sleep routine is the most powerful sleep tool of all. So, wake up at the same time every day, even during weekends. A tip: Place your alarm clock at the other end of the room, as far away from your bed as possible.
Take advantage of the sleep hormone melatonin
Humans are designed to sleep at night and before modern air conditioning, it would get colder at night.
A drop in temperature will trigger the sleep hormone melatonin, which signals the body to go to sleep. Sleep researchers have found that an average bedroom temperature of 18.3 degrees helps insomniacs fall asleep 25% faster than usual.
Also, taking a hot bath before bedtime decreases your body temperature and triggers melatonin. When you get out of a hot shower or bath, the blood will rush to the surface of your skin, away from the core of your body. So, the hands, the face and the feet will radiate the heat out, while your core gets nice and cold. In conclusion, this is an excellent way to spend your unwinding time before bed.
Use app-based behaviour therapy
The free depression app from Flow Neuroscience will help you change your sleeping habits and make other lifestyle changes to decrease depressive symptoms. The app includes a complete sleep module where a virtual therapist guides you through the process and even gives you homework assignments to help you stay on the right track. Download now (on Android; on Apple)
The relationship between sleep and depression is two-way. Treating your depression will improve your sleep quality and using new strategies to improve your sleep can decrease depressive symptoms.
Hanna Silva is a psychologist at Flow Neuroscience.