Sleep and mental health

Written by Dr Sarah Hattam

Any business, whatever their sector, needs to identify their competition. The CEO of Netflix infamously commented that their biggest competition was …sleep.

Well, Reed Hastings, who heads up this 186 billion dollar global empire and household name, must be feeling particularly smug at the moment.  With a lack of sport to spectate (unless you count marble racing and Belarusian soccer) not only are we apparently engaging in a lot more “Netflix and chill” during the current pandemic, but for many of us sleep really has gone out of the window.

So why should we worry?

The World Health Organisation tells us that the prevalence of mental ill health and suicide always rise in a pandemic.

We also know that there’s a two-way association between sleep and mental health – when sleep improves so does mental health.  Unfortunately, the reverse is also true.  Data suggests that people who have chronic insomnia have a nine-fold increased risk of depression.

A lot of our clients are reporting difficulty bagging a good night’s sleep at the moment.  And it’s not difficult to see why.

Our brain cycles between deeper sleep and lighter REM sleep approximately every 90 minutes through the night. In between each of these sleep cycles, we come very near to wakefulness. This is a mechanism that our brain has evolved to check for danger periodically through the night.  We’re facing multiple sources of uncertainty right now in the middle of this global pandemic.  (Aptly named – if you remove the middle three letters from the word “pandemic”, you’re left with panic!). So, it stands to reason that our emotional brain will be on guard even more efficiently than usual which may result in light, broken or fitful sleep and more random dreams than usual.  Add to this, disjointed routines, fuzzy boundaries between work and home and the sense that, even with all the additional juggling, our personal productivity has taken a nose-dive.  Plus, a measure of health or financial anxiety and relationship stress and you’ve got the perfect recipe for a poor night’s sleep.

So, what can we do to maximise sleep to keep our mental health tip-top at the moment?

Here are my three tips:

  • Be consistent – aim to stick broadly to the same bedtime and get-up time each day. By developing a predictable sleep routine, you will increase your sleep efficiency and the amount of deep restorative sleep that re-boots body and brain each night.
  • Make light work for you – try to get outside in natural daylight in the morning for at least 20-30 minutes. If you can’t do this, sit by the sunniest window in your home or office.  This signals to our brain that it’s daytime and helps to anchor a good sleep routine.  The reverse is true.  In the evening, avoid bright lights and screens for 2 hours before bed.  Smartphones and laptops emit a wavelength of light, invisible to the naked eye, which stop our brain producing the main sleepy hormone, melatonin.
  • Protect The Bedroom for sleep. Try not to let it become your breakfast bar, home office, cinema or kids’ playroom.  At night, keep it cool, dark and quiet.  And banish the tech. Recharge phones and electrical devices outside the bedroom, so you’re not tempted to join that interesting Linked In discussion at 2am!

There’s a lot of wisdom in the old saying that the best bridge between hope and despair is a good night’s sleep!

Enjoy getting yours tonight…

Dr Sarah Hattam is a GP and Founder of Organisation Health Consultancy Concilio Health (  Concilio Health runs virtual and on-site sleep training, one to one sleep coaching, and supports all aspects of physical and mental health in the workplace.  Check out their COVID19 wellbeing survey

Bringing health and performance together to get the best out of people.

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