Anxiety is now the most common mental illness in the United States, with nearly 40 million people experiencing anxiety disorder in any given year. What gives? While we aren’t mental health experts, we decided to talk with one. We spoke with Dr. Jennifer Guttman, a practicing clinical psychologist and behavioral therapist in New York City about sleep, anxiety, and how to get your best sleep during a breakup.
What is the relationship between sleep and mental health?
Sleep recharges our brains and is essential, especially to those struggling with anxiety and sadness. Without sleep people tend to feel fragile and misunderstood, which can lead to worsening moods. Any underlying anxiety or mood dysregulation will become worse without adequate sleep.
I recommend getting between 7 and 9 hours of sleep per night. You can evaluate how many hours you may need by taking note of how fast you fall asleep at night. If you lie down and are asleep in 30 seconds, you’re probably sleep deprived. One misconception is that you can catch up on sleep over the weekend, which is not true. It’s important to keep a sleep regimen Monday through Sunday, not just Monday through Friday.
What are the keys to a good nightly routine?
Good sleep hygiene is important for quality of sleep, and following a nightly routine cues to the brain to get ready for rest. Know when to cut off caffeine in the afternoon, and lower alcohol intake at night, which can disrupt sleep. Also, make sure to turn off led lights and screens! The light from screens actually increases brain activity instead of calming you down. Keep your sleep space as dark and quiet as possible.
What do you tell patients who have anxiety around sleep?
The first step to combating anxiety is shedding light on what your anxiety might be about. Some people binge watch news before sleep, which is not a good idea. Also, try to stay away from hot button issues with those close to you in the evening. If you feel like there are swirling thoughts in your head, keep a notebook by to your bed, write them down, and tell yourself you will think about them tomorrow morning. The bottom line here is, be mindful about having a calming routine before bed, and cut out unnecessary triggers.
Do you have advice about anxiety in the morning when waking up?
Many people wake up feeling overwhelmed with tidal waves of anxiety to the point of paralysis, which can create a negative feedback cycle. To combat this I usually tell patients two main things. For one, people who have anxiety in the morning don’t necessarily end up with anxiety throughout the day. In fact, once you start your morning routine, you will most likely feel the anxiety pass. Tell yourself, this isn’t going to last all day, I have been able to cope with this before and I will be able to again today. Turn the negative script into a positive. Second, I encourage people to find a way to calm down. Breathing exercises can help, and so can writing in a notebook to clear the noise in your head. Write down what needs to be done, and start by focusing on one thing you can do easily. When you feel like you can start crossing things off, you’ll gain confidence and the list becomes less daunting. What was once an overwhelming mountain begins to look like something you can climb.
What advice do you have about sleeping well after a breakup?
Many times in a relationship, we form sleep associations with our partners. During a breakup, you may not only be dealing with sadness and loneliness, but trouble sleeping without the person you associate sleep with. I recommend creating a new association -- even holding onto a pillow, and changing the room in some way so that it cues the brain that something has changed. It could be changing the color of your sheets or moving things around the bedroom.