Depression, anxiety and other mental disorders are notoriously difficult to treat. There is one potential remedy, however, that doesn’t require any money, trips to the doctor or pills to pop — getting a good night’s sleep.
Insomnia or lack of sleep is already known to be a symptom of mental illness. Now, research is showing that finding ways to capture that all-important slumber can actually contribute to healing whatever mental disorder is plaguing a patient.
“What’s interesting about sleep,” University of Pittsburgh psychologist Ellen Frank said to the Philadelphia Inquirer, “is that disordered sleep can be both a cause and a symptom of various mental problems, including bipolar disorder, unipolar depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and a whole host of other mental disorders.”
“Neuroimaging and neurochemistry studies suggest that a good night’s sleep helps foster both mental and emotional resilience, while chronic sleep disruptions set the stage for negative thinking and emotional vulnerability,” notes a mental health newsletter from the Harvard Medical School. “Studies in both adults and children suggest that sleep problems may raise risk for, and even directly contribute to, the development of some psychiatric disorders.”
Research from Ryerson University in Toronto, for example, found that people with depression doubled their chances of recovery if they addressed their insomnia first. The study used talk therapy to help people sleep at night in conjunction with other depression treatments. “The way this story is unfolding, I think we need to start augmenting standard depression treatment with therapy focused on insomnia,” researcher Colleen E. Carney said to The New York Times.
One ongoing study from the Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic in Pittsburgh discovered that a lack of sleep can be a sign that a manic episode is imminent in bipolar patients. And the Cleveland Clinic notes that “as many as two-thirds of patients referred to sleep disorders centers have a psychiatric disorder.”
For people who suffer from insomnia, it’s not so easy to just snap their fingers and decide to get better sleep. However, there are strategies that can help. Frank is working on a treatment called Interpersonal and Social Rhythm Therapy, which strives to keep people on regular schedules including ample and predictable sleep routines. She provides a list of tips for people who have trouble sleeping to help them make it through the night, including keeping the bedroom free of distractions, avoiding alcohol and caffeine in the evening and trying to wake up at the same time each day.
Sleeping medications should only be used as a last resort, as they don’t provide as much rest as natural sleep and don’t promote repeatable habits that lead you to an overall healthier lifestyle.
There is no silver bullet for treating depression and other mental disorders. But if you suffer from mental illness, or just want to lower your risk factors, there’s no substitute for turning off the lights, quieting your mind and settling in for a full night of solid sleep.