For Better Mental Health—Sleep on it!
May 21, 2024

This article is part of PAR’s Mental Health Awareness Month series, in which we will be focusing on the multifaceted issue of mental health in the U.S. 

“Waking up on the wrong side of the bed” is more than just a saying—we all have experienced the impact of a poor night’s sleep on our daily activities. Quality sleep is an essential component to good mental health, and there is a significant body of research showing the impact of sleep on anxiety, depression, suicide risk, PTSD, addiction, and much more. 

In support of Mental Health Awareness Month, we sat down with Melissa Milanak, PhD, Clinical Assessment Advisor at PAR and sleep expert, to get some tips on how to get a more restful night’s sleep and debunk some of the common misperceptions of sleep. 

Dr. Milanak, what do you think people need to know about the importance of sleep? 

People have come to believe the myth that the body can get used to less sleep. We have such busy days that we cheat our sleep to try to fit more in but fail to realize that on too little sleep, we are less productive and less efficient. This means it can actually take us longer to do things than if we had gotten more sleep! Research finds that both short- and long-term sleep deprivation can have significant negative effects on your body and your brain, proving that your body doesn't adapt to lack of sleep. 

We have to make sure that we're giving ourselves the opportunity to have quality restorative sleep without it being fragmented. It’s important for us to prioritize sleeping straight through the night and get the full amount of sleep that our bodies need. 

From a short-term standpoint, if you don’t have a good night’s rest, you may have some difficulties concentrating, some decline in mood or memory, or even feel fatigued. But longer term, we can see a significant negative impact on work performance or cognitive functioning. Lack of sleep can even increase the risk for dementia. 

Does everyone need the same amount of sleep? 

The standard of 8 hours of sleep is not actually a one-size-fits-all number. Eight hours is only an average. We are all unique and our needs vary. Some individuals require a shorter amount of time to be fully rested, while others need more. Also, this changes throughout our lives based upon many factors such as age and physical activity. 

As we sleep, we go through a process of cycles of sleep made up of stages of sleep. So much of this is dependent on how quickly we cycle through the different stages of sleep. Over the course of the night, the percentage of time spent in each stage of sleep changes, so we have to build up enough sleepiness to sleep all the way through the night to complete the process. We need to make sure we are getting to spend enough time in the stages of sleep that occur more frequently later in the process, in the early morning hours. 

This is also why we need to reduce the number of times we wake up. Each time we wake up, the process has to start over, so we can end up cheating ourselves out of those later stages of sleep that are responsible for cognitive processing and emotional wellbeing. 

Also, the older we get, typically the less sleep we need. If you think of it logically, sleep is designed for repair, rejuvenation, and growth. As we age, our cells are changing at a much slower pace. Think of how much sleep a newborn needs versus a baby or an adolescent. 

How do you know what your ideal amount of sleep is? 

When you have achieved your ideal amount of sleep, you will fall asleep within 10–15 minutes, sleep straight through the night (minus a possible bathroom break) and wake up feeling rested without daytime fatigue. 

Can I catch up on sleep if I take a nap or sleep late on the weekends? 

Catching up on sleep is something that people are constantly talking about trying to do. But research shows us that if you are not getting the adequate amount of sleep that your body needs, it can take at least four days for the body to make up for one hour less sleep. 

If you're trying to make up that sleep debt and you take that nap and go to bed earlier, you may wake up the next day and not feel as tired, but it doesn't mean that your body made up for the lost sleep the night before. 

Additionally, research has shown catching up on sleep doesn't immediately right the impact lack of sleep can have on our metabolism. We want to get ourselves right back on track to get to a place where we're getting the adequate amount that our bodies need. It's not as simple as just taking our weekends to try and “catch up” on sleep. It's going to be a much longer process to get back to what our bodies need. 

When you go to bed at different times, it can confuse your brain and make it harder to fall asleep over time. Your brain doesn't know when to feel tired. Think of it just like if you eat dinner at the same time every night, your brain knows to get hungry at the same time. 

What should I do if I can’t fall asleep? 

If you are trying to get to sleep and are awake for more than 15 minutes, get out of bed and do something boring in low light until you are sleepy enough to return to bed. 

The longer you spend in bed when you are not sleepy or are worrying, the more you will associate your bed with fear, worry, anxiety, and frustration. You want your body to associate your bed with sleep and not those feelings. 

Any tips for waking up in the middle of the night? 

If you wake in the night, do not check the clock! This adds to your stress as you begin calculating how much more sleep you might get. If your alarm has not gone off, then it does not matter what time it is. All that matters is that it is not time to be awake yet. 

If you truly cannot fall back to sleep, get out of bed. You can also do things to trigger sleep like redoing your wind-down routine to help your body and brain know it's time to sleep. 

What is the most important thing people should focus on to improve their sleep? 

One of the most important things we can do to improve our sleep is to have a consistent sleep and wake time seven days a week. If you go to sleep one night past your bedtime, it is very important to still wake up the next day at your regular wake up time. Although you will feel sleepier throughout the day, it is important to stay awake until your normal bedtime. Consistency with your sleep schedule is key. 

If you have a night where you did not sleep well, do not go to bed earlier the next night trying to catch up on sleep. When you try to force yourself to spend more time in bed than your body needs, you will wake up more often and get less quality, sustained sleep. 

And finally, make sure you reserve your bed for sleep—not reading, watching TV, or eating. Otherwise, your brain gets confused as to whether it should be asleep or awake when in bed.