Sleep and mental health: stories from inspirational creators
Your mental health can affect the quality of your sleep and vice versa. Poor sleep over the long term can lead to mental health issues. Mental health problems like depression can negatively affect sleep quality.
It is not always clear whether sleep problems or mental health challenges came first, but one thing is clear: they are definitely connected.
Stories about mental health and sleep
We reached out to a few bloggers, influencers and mental health advocates to talk to us about their relationship with sleep. Here is what they had to say:
Blake Auden is a poet from Brighton who has dealt with anxiety for most of his life. He is the author of “Beekeeper,” “Tell The Birds She’s Gone” and “Hiraeth.” Blake posts daily poems on his Instagram page: @blakeaudenpoetry.
I’ve suffered from anxiety most of my adult life, which has consistently bled into the quality (and quantity) of my sleep. For the past decade, I’ve struggled with insomnia symptoms, particularly the inability to sleep an entire night.
I find that my mental health and sleep are quite strongly linked, and often result in a worsening spiral that is hard to break. If I suffer a period of particularly strong anxiety, in most cases, this will result in a poor night’s sleep. This will then usually make my anxiety worse the following day, and a downward spiral of increasing anxiety and poor sleep begins.
I’ve taken several steps to try to improve my sleep, including not drinking any caffeine after midday (although I’m British, so I still drink decaf tea in the afternoon), exercising daily, going to bed at the same time every evening, and getting up at the same time. I’ve also tried to avoid using phone or computer screens for an hour before going to bed, and I try to avoid sugar or eating anything substantial for a couple of hours before sleep.
Creating and sticking to my sleep routine has helped limit these issues somewhat. Still, I have found that trying to reduce my anxiety through meditation, mindfulness, and writing, particularly in the evenings, can help improve my subsequent sleep. Similarly, exercise can help me break out of these cycles, improve my overall mood, and ensure I’m physically tired by the time I try to sleep.
I think it’s important for people to realize that mental health and sleep are often linked, and to try and be understanding and empathetic towards someone who struggles with poor sleep, particularly if it affects their mental health.
If you know someone who struggles with mental health and they seem tired, irritable, or appear to have difficulty focusing, don’t assume they were simply up late or partying the previous night. Often, a kind word or display of empathy can go a long way in improving how they feel, which might just help improve their sleep.
Vanessa is a stay-at-home mom of 3 and a blogger at Running in Triangles, a platform where moms can share their stories about postpartum depression. Her goal is to raise awareness and make information about mental health and self-care for moms available to those who need it most. You can find Vanessa on Instagram at @running_in_triangles.
Once upon a time, I was a naïve first-time mom with a “perfect” baby who slept through the night and never cried. I thought this motherhood thing was a cinch and so I decided to have another one. But my second child hated sleep. It was as though she anticipated naptime was coming and immediately threw a fit.
She only slept in spurts of 15 minutes every couple of hours. And when she wasn’t sleeping or attached to my breast, she was scream-crying.
It went on for a few days, then weeks, then months. The longer I went without sleep, the worse my mental health got. I was a walking zombie and could barely hold a conversation. I suffered from the worst fits of rage over the slightest things. I spent most nights consoling my crying baby and dreaming of running away or jumping off a bridge.
I battled postpartum depression steadily for 2 years before my daughter finally learned how to sleep without my help and constant attention. I took antidepressants and doing therapy and yoga and meditation and all the things I was supposed to do. But it wasn’t until I was able to sleep for longer than 2 hours when the symptoms gradually improved.
These days, a rough night with a sick kid can trigger a relapse of depression symptoms if I’m not careful. But my children are older now, and I’ve trained them to be self-sufficient in the mornings. If they wake up in the middle of the night, it is 100% my husband’s responsibility, and that’s a sacrifice he willingly makes for my mental health. While rough nights are sometimes unavoidable, I prioritize getting caught up on sleep before it affects my mental health. It’s been 8 years since that second baby was born and I will never take sleep for granted again.
Bianca L. Rodriguez
Bianca L. Rodriguez, MA, Ed.M, LMFT is an innovator, soul whisperer and columnist who specialises in mental health and wellness. In 2005, she received both her MA and Ed.M from Columbia University in psychological counselling. She has been featured in the Huffington Post, New York Post, Bravo TV and NBC News.
Even though she has dealt with depression, anxiety and alcoholism, she had a spiritual awakening which led her to realize that she was still a complete person despite this. She now aims to help others through her website You Are Complete and offers online courses and consultations to help others identify and clear blocked energy patterns and become who they’ve always wanted to be. You can find Bianca on Instagram at @youarecomplete.
When I’m experiencing heightened anxiety, I find it harder to fall asleep due to racing thoughts. I’ve also experienced waking up several hours before my alarm clock when I’m experiencing anxiety, especially before travel.
When your sleep is chronically disturbed for any reason, whether you’re not sleeping enough or you’re sleeping too much, it’s indicative that something is out of balance. It can be emotional, physical or both. Take it seriously and make an appointment with your doctor, therapist or healer to assess what’s going on.
I use a 3-part breathing technique and teach clients to help slow down racing thoughts, a common symptom of anxiety. It entails inhaling for 5 counts, holding the breath for 5 counts and then exhaling for 5 counts. Doing this for at least 3-5 minutes can significantly slow down your brain. I also try to limit electronics before bed, reading an actual paper copy of a book can do wonders.
When his wife passed away in March 2020, Tolulope Olajide (@tmolajide) launched his blog Balanced Wheel as a platform to share stories about loss, grief and transitioning into your new life. His goal is to provide a place where people can find healing and hope.
Recently, my wife passed away. I was only able to sleep for 2 hours a day for 5 months. The five months felt like many years. I chose not to take prescription medicine as I had read about the potential risk of dependency, and tried every trick in the book to try and sleep, including:
- Counting sheep and counting 100 backward to 1.
- I played white noise or relaxing background music which irritated me most of the time, so I guess I didn’t give it enough time to work.
- My friend thought perhaps a hot beverage would help, so we tried various hot chocolate and malted drinks.
- I eventually purchased the most potent over-the-counter sleep aids. At best they made me drowsy and wore off after 30 minutes.
- There were times when I would binge on Netflix after lying awake for hours.
- I went for long walks in the evening, hoping it would help and it didn’t help me sleep.
- I read more and sometimes drifted off to sleep while reading.
- Loss of appetite came with grief; I would intentionally eat twice a day. I observed that I slept longer, as my appetite gradually increased.
I can’t say that there was a particular thing that helped me sleep through the night, but I believe that the following contributed to helping me sleep:
- I walked longer and more daily. I would go for a 2-hour walk twice a day.
- I found that I slept earlier when I poured my emotions into my journal or my voice memo. It was hit and miss with sleep most times.
- I had blackout blinds and also wore an eye mask, which helped.
- I found reading a lot of grief blogs and books helpful.
I suppose that the combination of the above and grief taking its natural course helped. I bought a sofa where I read and think. I also spent more time away from the bed.
I have tried to maintain a sleep schedule and especially waking up at the same time most days. I now only go to bed when I am sleepy. When I have delayed sleep, I will either read or listen to an audiobook. I ensure that the room is still as dark as possible. I only take caffeine in the morning; I still exercise by going on long walks and eating a healthy diet.
Grief is the price we pay for love, and the emotions of grief are overwhelming. It is universal yet unique; it keeps the mind active, impacting sleep for some. If you are grieving, permit yourself to grieve as you see fit. Be gentle and kind to yourself, ensure that you speak to someone or write down your unfiltered thoughts. And seek professional help if the grief and lack of sleep are prolonged.
Lindsay Musgrove is a mental health advocate and the editor-in-chief of The Dopamine Flux, a website where she shares her own experiences with mental illness and advice on all things related to mental health like self-care, embracing change and taking medication. She is the author of “Pills, Passion, and Poetry” and “For The Love Of Sanity.” You can find her on Instagram at @dopamineflux
My mental health affects my sleep in various ways. I deal with severe insomnia due to my mental illness (schizoaffective disorder). If I don’t get enough sleep, I have a higher chance of dealing with mania the next day. My doctor has put me on over-the-counter sleep medications such as Unisom to help me receive the sleep I need to function daily with my mental illness. Otherwise, I would not be able to go about a typical day with little to no sleep. The amount of sleep I get affects every aspect of my life. I need as much as I can get.
A lack of good sleep hygiene is a huge contributor to failing or worsening mental health, and it developing into mental health issues and illnesses. It would help society understand the importance of the connection between positive mental health and good sleep hygiene.
Alison Dotson is an OCD advocate, author and editor. She was diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) at 26 and has since learned a lot about managing it. She even wrote a book about it: Being Me with OCD: How I Learned to Obsess Less and Live My Life. Alison is the president of OCD Twin Cities, which is an affiliate of the International OCD Foundation. You find Alison on Facebook at @BeingMewithOCD.
I rarely fall asleep easily, even when I feel exhausted before going to bed. I have obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), and before I was diagnosed and experiencing really upsetting and disturbing intrusive thoughts I was afraid to be in the dark alone, not because I thought anything was out there but because of what was happening in my mind.
I didn’t want to close my eyes until I was sure I’d fall asleep, and I often kept the TV on to keep my mind occupied. This didn’t work! After I was diagnosed and I was less scared of my own thoughts, I could at least turn out the lights and be in the quiet by myself, but I still struggle with sleep to this day. Now I think it likely has more to do with depression and anxiety.
When I feel depressed, I sleep as late as I can and nap a lot during the day. Then it’s really hard to fall asleep when I actually need to, at a reasonable hour at nighttime. Anxiety also keeps me up because I start to worry that I forgot to do something for work, that I’ve forgotten something I need to do at work the next day, or that I’ll oversleep and be late.
I wish people knew that sleeping a lot can be a sign of depression and doesn’t mean they are lazy. (Even if they are lazy, who cares? We all need to live our own lives.) When I’ve been at my most depressed, the only way to get through the day was sometimes sleeping through most of it. It’s like an escape, and while it’s not necessarily a healthy solution, it can be hard to avoid. And if someone sleeps late, it doesn’t mean they’re lazy, either! It might just mean they didn’t fall asleep at a reasonable hour, and this is the only way they’ll get eight hours. I also hope people who have a mental health condition that affects their sleep know they’re not alone.
I admit I don’t always follow my own advice as well as I should, but what helps is reading before bed (a physical book, not on my phone or e-reader). If the book is a mystery and really suspenseful, this can backfire! But I know it’s best for me to avoid staring at my phone while in bed (easier said than done).
I do, however, use my phone to listen to sleeping podcasts. One I like is called “Sleep with Me.” The host has a very soothing, almost sleepy-sounding voice, and he rambles on, so you don’t find yourself trying to follow a story and being too stimulated. It’s helped me a lot.
Sometimes, I listen to any podcast as long as it isn’t too energetic (lots of laughter or loud reactions) and have the volume relatively low, so I can’t actually hear what is being said but just listen to a voice lulling me to sleep. I also rely on the white noise of my fan or space heater, depending on the season.
Since anxiety can keep me up, I try to make a list of anything that needs to be done the next day, so I feel more relaxed. At least I’ve done something to plan ahead a little, and that can ease my mind.
Angela Arena is on a mission to empower women through wellness. After the stress of trying to balance being a mom, wife, and caregiver, and executive caused her to develop insomnia, she tried cannabis, and the rest is history. Her company, Kind Lab, offers cannabis-based products for those looking for natural treatment options to help them with their sleep and mental health problems. You can find Angela on Instagram at @kindlab_co.
I discovered cannabis for sleep 5 years ago when I was suffering from debilitating, stress-induced insomnia. I was so resistant to trying it because, at the time, it was only newly legal (for medical use in Massachusetts). Once I tried it and realised how effective it was without the downsides of alternatives, I was on my way to becoming a cannabis educator and advocate.
In terms of mental health, I always tell people: solve sleep, and many of your daytime woes will improve. There’s so much a good night’s sleep can do for you – physically and mentally. It’s a great place to start your cannabis journey. The bonus is that if you’re worried about the “high,” nighttime is excellent because you’ll sleep right through it.
A rule of thumb for all new cannabis consumers is to start low and go slow. Don’t go right to concentrates or super high THC options. Pick an option with a nice THC:CBD ratio; find a time when your responsibilities are light, and you can relax and ease your way into discovering your optimal dose.
For sleep, Grandaddy Purple is always a go-to. But I have to go straight to bed, or I end up cleaning out my pantry – it triggers major munchies for me!
For daytime, I love Lemon Haze to boost energy and creativity while reducing stress. Jack Herer is a well-known go-to for combatting daytime sadness.
Be patient, and take notes of your experiences. With time, you’ll find the best product, method, and dosing.
Are you currently trying to improve your mental health and improve your sleep quality at the same time? Hopefully, these inspiring stories will remind you that you are not alone and that there are ways to get relief, sleep better and feel better overall.
It might take some time to experiment and find what works best for you, but know that things can get better, and there are steps you can take towards better sleep and better mental health.