During the throws of the pandemic, it’s fair to say a great deal of us struggled with maintaining healthy sleep schedules. It’s also fair to say that a monkey wrench was thrown into our daily routines, nearly erasing the dividing line between work and leisure. We pop our heads off the pillows and roll to our laptops, updating those spreadsheets and attending Teams meetings from twisted duvets.
How healthy is this practice and what does contemporary psychology say about consolidating all of our habits into one location? The jury may still be out on that question but the impact of environment is anything but negligible. Our minds do associate certain activities with certain settings and performing some of the most stress-inducing and cognitively demanding aspects of our day from our resting place seems contradictory, to say the least. A proper sleep environment is but one of numerous factors that contribute to our sleep hygiene and influence our mental health. So, what else impacts 40-wink acquisition and what are the ensuing consequences?
It’s no surprise to hear that caffeine consumption near bedtime can be counterproductive. Heck, most of us are even familiar with helpful bedroom rituals: reducing light penetration, decreasing ambient temperature, eliminating the use of electronics at least an hour before our desired time (in some cases, limiting usage to select rooms in our home), not clock-watching, getting out of bed to do menial things if we can’t sleep, etc. The question is whether or not these techniques are sufficient to mitigate significant sleep issues and if our struggles are reducible to lack of self-discipline. More often than not, the answer is unfortunately in the negative.
Insomnia affects about 33% of Americans and 50% of the time it is related to stress or anxiety. There is often a bi-directional relationship between insomnia and different anxiety and mental health disorders, meaning it functions both as a trigger and a symptom. Health conditions like depression and various anxiety disorders (Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and General Anxiety Disorder, to name a few) are connected to sleep issues, causing people to wake up repeatedly throughout the night as a consequence of horrific nightmares and/or leaving them in a state of hyperawareness. The acknowledgment of rest and its importance can act as an unbearable load for those afflicted, exacerbating their anxiety and further shrinking the likelihood of achieving the recharge they need. This negative feedback loop can have devastating consequences, even increasing the risk of relapse in depression for those who experienced mood improvement after medicinal intervention.
When it comes to discerning how exactly insomnia harms our brains, consulting sleep stages is useful. Because so many people who suffer from mental health disorders may not achieve the depth of sleep they need, emotion regulation and successful executive functioning (organization, flexibility, self-control, perseverance, et al.) are harder to come by. Completing multiple cycles is key for positive emotion development. This includes our deepest stages and REM (rapid eye movement) during which we dream, our body temperature rises and our heart rate increases. Proper cycling also improves memory retention, cognitive processing and learning. An extreme lack of sleep can increase negative emotion and even contribute to the fostering of suicidal ideations and behaviors.
This may sound rather bleak, but there are tools we can use to combat the austerity of our global situation that go beyond visualizing our thoughts as passing clouds. Different behavioral therapy techniques such as positive data logs, worry diaries, daily journals, thought distortion records, progressive muscle relaxation and box breathing are all effective ways to help quell anxious spells and reorient perspectives. These resources alongside the counsel of a medical professional almost always ameliorate our experiences. They may even incentivize us to open up another tab; one for a gratitude journal, right next to Excel.
Adrian is a writer and editor with a passion for language, philosophy and psychology. He is returning to academia to pursue a career in neuropsychology, investigating the relationship between stress, anxiety, and the provocation of various neurological disorders. His professional contributions include personal essays for the online publication “The Mindful Word" and editorial work for LetsStopAIDS.
The views and opinions expressed in Community are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Madiha Foundation.