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“O sleep! O gentle sleep! Nature’s soft nurse”

A good night’s sleep is essential to our physical and mental health and general well-being.

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Shakespeare wrote those words in Henry IV part 2 over 500 years ago.  Back then he knew that a good night’s sleep is essential to our physical and mental health and general wellbeing.   

No matter the age of a client in front of me, one of the first questions I always ask is:  how are you sleeping? Disrupted sleep is usually a clear indicator that the client is experiencing emotional difficulties.  It is not always easy to determine which came first:  the poor sleep or the emotional trouble.  But the link between sleep and our mental health is very clear. 

There are two sleep states:

REM sleep (Rapid Eye Movement sleep)

This is when we dream.  The latest theories on sleep suggest that dreaming maintains our mental health.  Unfulfilled emotional arousal that has occurred during the day can be completed via the metaphors in a dream.   The ability to dream and to understand metaphor, are two of our innate resources.  In a normal sleep cycle, this should take up about 25% of our 8 hours sleep.

SWS (Slow Wave Sleep)

This is when the body repairs itself after a long, hard day.  It is when the bruises from a hard game of rugby heal. It is when the immune system boosts itself.  It is when memories get filed into our long term memory store and it is vital for learning and exam preparation.  It should take up about 75% of our 8 hours sleep.

What we can see here is:

  1. If we are constantly aroused emotionally (because of for example anxiety and depression) we will need to dream more in order to flush out the emotional arousal.
  2. If we have to dream more, we do not get enough slow wave sleep and the body is not given the time to repair and build.  If the immune system is not given time to repair itself, we get ill.
  3. If we dream more, we do not give the brain time to file away what we have learnt and this in turn makes life a little more difficult to cope with
  4. Dreaming is hard work.  The brain is as active while we are dreaming as when we are awake by day.  If we spend too much time dreaming, we wake up exhausted and without enough emotional energy to face the day.  We get more anxious that we should.  The smallest things appear insurmountable. The cycle continues.
  5. If we do not get enough SWS, our body is tired

What are the typical sleep problems?

  1. Taking a long time to get to sleep – we should be able to fall asleep within 20 minutes of putting our head down for the night
  2. Constantly waking through the night and not being able to get back to sleep.  For some, waking is normal.  It is if you cannot get back to sleep that there is a problem
  3. Waking up really early and not being able to get back to sleep.  Some of us are early risers and that is not a problem.  It is about the amount and the quality of sleep you are getting.

Sorting out our sleep pattern can be very effective in restoring and maintaining our ability to cope with what life throws at us.  It can be the first step in taking control of our mental health and well-being.

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