In the face of the global pandemic that has upended our lives, one of the unexpected heroes of our mental health may be found in the quiet night hours, tucked away under our blankets: quality sleep.
Research led by the University of York suggests that quality sleep can reinforce our mental resilience against afflictions such as depression and anxiety, particularly in periods of chronic stress.
For many of us, stress is a consistent backdrop to our lives. It’s a factor so familiar that we often underestimate its powerful and pervasive effects on our mental health
. But the team from York is eager to highlight that chronic stress stands as a major player in the development of several mental health disorders, notably including depression and pathological anxiety.
However, the good news is that, just as we have the power to mitigate physical health risks with a good diet and exercise, we also have tools at our disposal to buffer the impact of stress on our mental health.
Two of these tools, according to the York study, are high-quality sleep and the utilization of positive coping strategies. These include reframing a stressful situation to see its positive aspects.
To delve deeper into these relationships, the research team harnessed data from over 600 participants during the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic. This period served as a real-life model of an extended, stressful event.
The researchers aimed to explore the theory that positive coping strategies, enhanced by good sleep, could foster positive mental health outcomes.
Emma Sullivan, a PhD student from the Department of Psychology at the University of York, explains, “As the COVID-19 pandemic has been a prolonged period of stress for people across the entire world, it offered us with a unique context with which to address our research questions.”
“This is the first study to investigate the ways in which positive coping strategies and sleep quality influence depression and anxiety when experiencing a real-world chronic stressor. We found that better sleep quality was associated with fewer symptoms of both depression and anxiety during the initial months of the COVID-19 pandemic.”
The team’s key message? Sleep matters. In Sullivan’s words, “These findings highlight the importance of targeting both positive coping strategies and sleep quality when enduring periods of chronic stress.”
The researchers scrutinized data from the Boston College Daily Sleep and Well-being Survey. For this study, participants regularly reported their sleep quality and mental well-being during the pandemic.
The participants also completed a baseline demographic survey that provided valuable insights into age, gender, and ethnicity. Beyond sleep and mental health, the surveys captured a vast array of additional information. This included participants’ alcohol consumption, quarantine status, and physical activity levels.
Reflecting on the findings was Dr Scott Cairney. He is a PhD supervisor on the project from the Department of Psychology at the University of York. Cairney notes, “We have known for a long time that high-quality sleep is associated with better health and well-being outcomes, but we wanted to know whether this would change if sleep and coping strategies were put under intense and prolonged periods of stress, as it was for so many during the pandemic.”
“We found that sleep plays a hugely important role in the management of chronic stress and can sustain well-being over a long period of time, reducing symptoms of depression and anxiety.”
These intriguing findings, tucked away in the folds of a pandemic, serve as a reminder of the power of sleep as a champion of our mental health. This is true even in the toughest of times. The prestigious journal Cortex published the study.
Sleep is a fundamental biological process essential for the overall well-being and functioning of humans. It’s not just about resting or feeling fresh; sleep has a deep-rooted connection with various aspects of our mental, emotional, and physical health. Here are some key points on why sleep is so crucial:
Sleep plays a key role in learning, memory, and cognitive functions. When we sleep, our brain works to consolidate the information we’ve learned during the day, making it easier to access later.
It enhances our problem-solving skills and creativity. Lack of sleep can result in reduced cognitive functioning, leading to problems with focus, attention, reaction times, and decision-making abilities.
Sleep is deeply connected to a range of health issues. Chronic sleep deprivation has been linked to an increased risk of conditions like obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and even certain types of cancer.
That’s because during sleep, the body works on healing and repairing heart and blood vessels. It also helps maintain a healthy balance of the hormones that make us feel hungry (ghrelin) or full (leptin).
Lack of sleep can lead to mood changes, such as increased irritability, anxiety, and depression. People who don’t get enough sleep have a harder time regulating their emotions and can struggle with mental health disorders. On the other hand, adequate sleep promotes a positive mood and emotional resilience.
While we sleep, our bodies produce proteins called cytokines which help promote sleep, fight infection, and reduce inflammation. Lack of sleep can alter the way our immune system responds to infection, making us more susceptible to illnesses.
Sleep is especially crucial for children and adolescents. During deep sleep, the body releases growth hormone, which contributes to growth and development, including the maturation of the brain and repair of cells and tissues in the body.
Adequate sleep can lead to better productivity, concentration, and higher cognitive function, which are crucial for our performance in daily tasks. Moreover, sleep deprivation can lead to serious safety issues, like drowsy driving, which can be as dangerous as driving drunk.
While sleep requirements vary slightly from person to person, most healthy adults need between 7 to 9 hours of sleep per night to function at their best. Consistently getting less than this can lead to chronic sleep deprivation, which has both short and long-term impacts on health.
Despite the importance of sleep, it is often one of the first things we’re willing to sacrifice in the hustle of modern life. But understanding the importance of sleep can inspire us to prioritize this fundamental biological need.