Editor’s Note: Psychologist John Duffy, author of “Parenting the New Teen in the Age of Anxiety,” practices in Chicago. He specializes in work with teens, parents, couples and families.
I worked recently with a 25-year-old man struggling at his job. He described difficulty thinking clearly and missing too many days. And his relationship with his girlfriend was nearly over due to his admitted neglect. Diagnosed with both depression and anxiety, he said he felt disengaged in his life. He had been in therapy before for a couple of years, and had tried medications for depression, anxiety and attention issues. Nothing seemed to work.
I asked one question that I always ask: How’s your sleep?
I wasn’t surprised when he told me his sleep patterns were “terrible.” He would sleep four to six hours per night during the week, staying up until 2 a.m. or 3 a.m. on social media, or binge-watching a TV show. He tried to make up for sleep on weekends but sometimes woke up feeling even more tired.
His sleeping patterns were established in childhood and carried into his adult life. As we gradually shifted his sleep habits, adding sleep time during the week and creating set a bedtime and wake time, his symptoms began to diminish. Within two months, he reported nearly no depression or anxiety. Our primary interventions involved changing his sleep habits.
Sleep and mental health
As it turns out, our sleep patterns correlate very closely with our degree of emotional wellness. Adults should be getting at least seven hours of sleep per night, though 1 in 3 fail to reach that minimum, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
When I ask my clients to track their rest time, they find they get far less sleep than they think they do. Our poor sleep patterns can drive the stress that contributes to anxiety, depression and our ability to focus.
Poor sleep also disrupts engagement in activities that support emotional wellness. In fact, teens with irregular sleep patterns over the course of the week can experience “social jet lag” starting Monday morning, putting them behind in terms of both performance and connection with others. This can drive not only a decrease in performance academically, but tardiness, missed days, and a lack of readiness to learn. I have found this dip in performance and preparedness to be true among my adult clients as well.
Finally, too many families I’ve worked with experience chaotic evenings, with to-do items, homework or conflicts carrying on late into the night. Various screens contribute to the hectic, disruptive and unsettling tone of too many households.
I find that the development of better sleep habits is among the quickest, most effective ways to improve mental well-being for an individual or a family.
Here are a number of manageable ways to improve sleep rapidly in your home.
Leave the devices behind
So many of my clients end their days in bed looking at one screen or another, scrolling through social media or watching videos. Over the past several years, addiction to smartphones has become a common referral issue in therapy practices.