How A Better Night’s Sleep Can Boost Your Mental Health This Winter
Ever since I started blogging three years ago , I have been candid about my struggles with mental health, having been diagnosed with depression, anxiety and PTSD aged 22. While I was diagnosed three years ago, the reality is that I was exhibiting symptoms of mental health issues from as young as six years old after being abused by my stepmother, abandoned by my mother and bullied throughout my teen and young adult years. I had to deal with trauma and neglect from a young age which had a negative impact on my mental health and for many years I would suffer in silence, afraid to be typecast as a drama queen as I had been labelled before ‘when I tried to seek help’. I would lay restless and awake at night with incessant insomnia, have chronic fatigue and physical as well as emotional pain that would take a toll on my everyday life, to the extent that there were times where I couldn’t even ‘fake it’ anymore, struggling to plaster on that manic smile that others were so adamant I should have, a positive mindset they called it. Eventually when I realized that I had mental health issues that needed to be addressed, I no longer felt ashamed to come forward and share my stories with others. Instead I felt relieved, a shared bond with those who had trodden the same arduous path of mental health discovery as I had.
While depression can often be a life-long illness, for some like myself, mental health issues can not only be triggered by trauma, low self-esteem and abuse, but it can also be affected by the weather, known as Seasonal Affective Disorder or SAD for short. For me I find my mental health can plummet to an all time low during winter, when the nights are dark, the days are short and the lack of sunshine and warmth, can leave you feeling exhausted before the day has even begun. I struggle to shake off the blanket of melancholy that snakes its way around my shoulders, and shudder at the dark cloud that cloaks my mind like poison gas,wrapped in a padlocked bow. At night when the whole world is sleeping I lie awake imprisoned by my own thoughts, tossing and turning for hours on end, wishing the knight rider of sleep would come and pluck me into its dreamland world. However not everyone who suffers from SAD, has depression all year round; for some their mental health is purely affected by the weather or ‘change in the seasons’ which can result in a low mood and general sluggishness that can dramatically impact their quality of life.
Dealing With Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)
What Does SAD Mean?
While I struggle with depression all year round-heightened by my anxiety- during the colder months I find it more difficult to maintain a positive mindset, as I struggle with the colder weather which can leave me feeling de-motivated, having less (or a poorer quality of sleep), and having dramatic mood swings which can leave me feeling ‘highly emotional’, irritated and often have a heavy migraine or headache to accompany my low mood. And I am not alone;known as seasonal depression, SAD is most common during winter, affecting roughly 1 in 15 people in the UK between September and April. While women are recorded as being more likely to have SAD than men, this might be because men are not always as open to seeking advice for their mental health, for fear of being seen as weak ‘buying into’ the archaic stereotype or mantra that dictates that ‘boys or real men don’t cry’, which quite frankly is a load of bull. Regardless of gender, SAD can affect us all and it is so important to understand why ‘changes in the seasons’ or transitions into winter can have the biggest negative impact on our mental health, reducing the chance of a better nights sleep.
During the colder months (especially between December and January) there is less sunlight, and therefore we cannot take in as much vitamin D, because sunlight produces ‘natural levels of Vitamin D’ that is transferred over to us through as little as thirty minutes of exposure to the sun. However, because the clocks go back (creating shorter days), we have less exposure to the sunlight, which not only affects our circadian rhythm but it also affects the production of melatonin and serotonin. Because both melatonin and serotonin play a vital role in constructing our ‘mood and sleep patterns’, when we have a reduced supply of both hormones, it can lead to a lower mood during winter, because you are not getting the ‘mood boosting hormones’ that you need to get that ‘feel good factor’. As someone who has clinical depression that can be heightened by lack of sunlight, from personal experience I can vouch for having a poorer quality of sleep during winter, as while I tend to have an average of 3-5 hours sleep per night all year round, in the winter I find it harder to get out of bed, because it is so dark and cold outside.
SAD SYNDROME AND SLEEP
When the weather is grey and ghastly, it goes without saying that insomnia can feel even more ‘brutal’ as you wander bleary eyed into the world of the living, struggling not to put your mobile phone in the fridge and your iron in the freezer. And before you ask, yes it is physically possible to want to have a frozen iron for breakfast, because who doesn’t like a bit of al-dente cuisine to start the day? But I jest; Seasonal Affective Disorder is no laughing matter, and not only can it affect your sleep (whether that be through insomnia or hypersomnia disorder), but it can also cause fatigue, weight gain, make you feel sad or depressed, have manic mood swings, have an inability to focus and during severe cases can lead to suicidal thoughts. In my case depression and anxiety has affected my sleep the most, leaving me feeling like my ‘mind cannot switch off at night’, as I flip through ‘multiple browsers in my mind’, unable to focus at one thing at a time. Because I have a poorer quality of sleep this can mean that there are days where I struggle to focus, have severe mood swings, struggle to keep my eyes open (and yet can’t sleep), have no energy and can have negative thoughts, a common theme being that I can struggle to think highly of myself, feel upset or angry (although I am good at masking these intense emotions) and above all feel sad and depressed, which believe me is not a good way to feel.
Those who suffer from depression, SAD or both might find that one of the most common symptoms is struggling with retaining normal levels of sleep. But it is not just insomniacs like me; Individuals suffering from SAD may oversleep, and their quality of sleep will be lower than usual. This is because in winter our circadian rhythm shifts, changing the body’s sleep-wake cycle. Known as hypersomnia, unlike insomniacs who struggle to get to sleep or maintain a ‘good quality of sleep’, hypersomniacs are defined as those who have nine or more hours of sleep, hence ‘over-sleeping’. This is usually due to feeling ‘sluggish and tired’ during the day-which I feel most of the time- but people don’t realize how those who ‘sleep more than the average’ will still feel just as tired as they did before they went to sleep. Insomniacs however can be split into two types: Acute Insomniacs and Chronic Insomniacs. Despite the cute sounding name, acute insomnia is anything but cute, defined as lack of sleep due to ‘stress or anxiety’ although unlike chronic insomnia, often resolves without treatment and is present for a shorter amount of time.
In contrast, chronic insomnia-which I have- is disrupted sleep that occurs at least three nights per week and lasts at least three months. Chronic insomnia disorders can have many causes, although in my case it is linked to depression and anxiety which can become amplified at night when I am trying to sleep. It’s because it is one of those rare moments where I am ‘stopping’ and sitting still, hence being more prone to over-thinking every single little thing that I do. For others their chronic insomnia might be linked to not having enough comfort- whether that be through the mattress or pillow that they use- a change in work or home environment or other clinical disorders, like the aforementioned ‘SAD’. While Chronic insomnia can be comorbid, meaning it is linked to another medical or psychiatric issue, there are treatment options available, so if you do have poor quality of sleep it might be worth talking to your GP about it, to try and get to the bottom of why you are unable to fall asleep or are oversleeping at night. However as previously mentioned your sleep patterns can be linked to prior medical issues, whether that be an illness, disease or disorder. For example as I have had PTSD in the past (due to abuse and trauma) I would often have horrifying nightmares, struggle or not want to go to sleep for fear of what I might dream about, as well as flashbacks and disassociate episodes, which can also be linked to SAD, because your ‘internal thoughts’ can be processed and transcribed by the mind as something to be ‘scared about’ because it is bringing your subconscious fears to the surface.
How A Better Night’s Sleep Will Boost Your Mental Health This Winter
Not getting enough sleep per night can have a negative impact on our mental health and state of mind, leading us to feel disorientated, unfocused and unable to feel productive, despite our to do list which reads as a mile long. Yet when we wake up from a deep and meaningful sleep we feel refreshed, we feel revitalized and ready to take on the day one step at a time. Sleep is as important to our health as eating, drinking and breathing. It allows our bodies to repair themselves and our brains to consolidate our memories and process information. Yet sleeping is more than just a powerful healing tool for the body, but for the mind too as poor sleep is linked to mental health problems such as anxiety and depression, as well as physical problems like a weakened immune system. But how exactly can a better night’s sleep boost your mental health I hear you ask?
According to scientific research conducted by the ‘Sleep Health Foundation’, having a good level of sleep each night builds upon our ability to manage and cope with life’s challenges, because sleep is a built in biological source of resilience. In other words, sleep conditions us to deal with adversity as well as navigating the overwhelming nature of our daily lives, because a good night’s sleep helps to foster the relationship between mental and emotional resilience.In contrast when we have chronic insomnia-which is closely linked to depression- it can enable emotional vulnerability, negative thinking and other mental health issues. After all, because we are always on the go if by nighttime we are unable to get a good night’s rest, we are unable to process the information that we had during the day, which consequently will result in poor concentration, because the information is not accessible when it is needed.
Given that research suggests that 60-90% of patients with depression have insomnia (and approximately 20% of people with depression have sleep apnoea), looking after our sleep to promote good mental health seems imperative to our physical and mental wellbeing -which is why I have created a mental health toolkit to combat SAD this winter, to bring a much-needed dose of sunshine into our lives.
HOW TO BEAT THE WINTER BLUES And Kick SAD IN THE BUTT
Poor mental health is never easy to deal with, especially in the throes of winter, when the nights are arduously cold and the darkness seems to stretch out for eons. But have no fear, if you suffer from SAD, depression, anxiety, insomnia or anything else that is triggered by a lack of sleep, there are plenty of ways to try and reduce the effects of mental health issues this winter. Whether you choose to take Vitamin D supplements, or carve out quality time with friends and family, do what makes you feel happier. For example I would describe myself as being someone who needs ‘social interaction’ because I can feel alienated, lonely or isolated when I spend too much time on my own which can lead to negative thinking and high levels of intense emotions. However at the same time I also need my own space to thrive and flourish, so when I spend too much time with other people that can also feel emotionally draining so it can be tricky to strike the balance between interaction and alone time, but the variables are entirely dependent on the person in question.
Increase Your Vitamin D Intake
While it is difficult to spend time outside when the weather is less than welcoming, even a few moments in the fresh air can really help you to feel more alive, if a little cold. And yet in winter, because of the absence of the sun, it can be difficult to get the Vitamin D that you need, which is why taking supplements like D2 (plant based vitamin D) can give you extra Vitamin D that you are unable to obtain from the sunlight. You can also boost your vitamin D by eating fatty fish like mackerel or if you are a vegetarian like myself, then fortified cereals, egg yolks, tofu and soy are all great alternatives for Vitamin D. For example a delicious tofu curry would be a great source of Vitamin D, that will more than make up for the lack of it during the colder months.
Spend Quality Time With Loved Ones
It goes without saying that too much time spent in isolation can be detrimental to your mental health, especially if you have SAD, depression or anxiety. After all not only has loneliness been linked to cognitive decline-especially in seniors- but it has also been attributed to an increase in medical conditions like fatal cardiovascular disease, with loneliness and social isolation being linked to a 29% increased risk of a heart attack or angina, and a 32% increased risk of having a stroke. But how can spending time with others decrease our risk of disease? Well it is simple, when we are with others, we are technically ‘on the go’ and active, which means that we are making healthier choices by spending time with others. After all mental stimulation is proven to have physical benefits like a better immune system, better quality of sleep and can increase our productivity levels tenfold.
It has also been proven that adults who are more socially connected are healthier and live longer than those who are more isolated, because ‘stress’ or ‘sadness’ can be caused by isolation and loneliness. Not only is spending quality time with friends or family a great way to feel better when it’s cold and dark outside, but it is a great stress-reliever, because you have the ability to ‘talk to others’, without spending too much time by yourself. Another theory states that social interactions may act as a buffer, protecting you from the potentially harmful effects of ongoing stress and the way your body responds to it, thus warding off potentially fatal diseases like heart attacks, strokes and dementia. I would also mention that if you are finding the winter blues particularly difficult please don’t suffer in silence, talking to an expert about your feelings may enable you to get to the bottom of why you are feeling so low.
Create A Better ‘Sleep & Rise Routine’
I will be the first to admit that my ‘sleeping habits’ are somewhat diabolical forgoing every rule that tells me to not use my phone before bed and to not use technology before going to sleep. However when I tried changing my sleep routine, I found that I was even more unsettled than I was previously, which led me to go back to my old habits of messaging late at night and watching Ru Paul’s Drag Race before I hit the hay. However, I have made small tweaks to my bedtime routine which has enabled me to feel slightly more relaxed, if not more ‘sleepy’, which has included getting comfier bedding that supports my bad back, having a bubble bath at night, warming up blankets on the radiator, wearing a fluffy dressing gown and watching my favourite shows that will give me the feel good factor that I need to have sweet dreams.
But getting up in the morning is another story, especially when I have spent all night tossing and turning and seem to have just drifted off to sleep when the alarm starts ringing, demanding my full attention. It is a well known fact that me and mornings do not get along- I am much more happier at night- so I have been looking at ways to make getting out of bed a little easier, especially when it is so cold in the mornings and the radiators are turned off. I had a friend who recommended that I get a light box, as it is meant to help with SAD, especially if your depression is amplified by the dark or poor weather. In fact sitting in front of a light box -which gives out a bright light- has been shown to boost your mood and even help you get a better night’s sleep. You could also use a dawn simulator to mimic sunrise in your bedroom, ensuring you wake up feeling refreshed, as opposed to grouchy like me!
What Is Your Relationship Like With Your Sleep? Do You Think That A Better Night’s Sleep Can Boost your Mental Health This Winter?
This post is in conjunction with TEMPUR® but all thoughts are my own.