Anxiety, Depression and Sleep
We live in a radically sleep deprived society. Many of us face the interconnected issues of anxiety, depression and sleep.
In our time, we’re aware that there are many things that can damage our sleep. Certainly, our consumption of commodities such as caffeine, alcohol, tobacco and sweetners can reduce quality of sleep. Similarly, we’re increasingly aware of the negative impact of screen technologies on our sleep. What we’ve learned about the relationship of depression and sleep presents a more complex picture.
As sleep experts such as Johns Hopkins University researcher Dr. Patrick Finan affirm, depression often leads to more difficulty in falling and staying asleep. Yet on the other hand, poor sleep may create difficulty in regulating emotion, which may leave a person with greater vulnerability to depression.
There’s a similarly complex relationship between anxiety and sleep, sometimes known as “the vicious cycle of anxiety and sleep loss”. Simply put, this means that sleep loss often occurs prior to anxiety disorders, but, on the other hand, anxiety can often lead to sleep loss.
Depression, Anxiety & Sleep — What Gives?
If depression and anxiety are often related to insomnia or loss of sleep, what does this mean for us? As experts such as Harvard’s Prof. Clifford Saper indicate, sleep deprivation is usually about degradation of sleep over time, rather something that comes about because of an absolute lack of sleep.
Saper also shows that much of what we mean by sleep deprivation, with all its negative effects, really refers to deprivation of that part of sleep known as rapid eye movement or REM sleep. In this phase of sleep, the body becomes becomes quite relaxed, while the brain becomes more active. Normally, we spend twenty per cent (perhaps an hour and a half?) of our sleep time in REM sleep, but when sleep gets disrupted, this can become much less. When REM sleep is disrupted, there are negative consequences for memory, the nervous system and our immune systems, among other things. We also know that the amygdala, the “fire alarm” of the brain that is in charge of our fight or flight response, becomes much more active when we’re sleep-deprived.
The Meaning of Sleep
During REM sleep, as noted above, the body becomes quite relaxed and the brain becomes very active. Scholars such as Yaneer Bar-Yam have suggested that, in REM sleep, the mind-brain is active, but essentially cut off from sensory input. In this state Bar-Yam theorizes, the brain can process our waking experience, and break it up into pieces that become the building blocks for creative learning, enabling adaptive responses to situations we encounter in the future.
This is what is occurring in REM sleep, which is the period of sleep in which deep dreaming occurs. In the words of Margaret Wilkinson
…one result of such processing is that, through metaphor, the unconscious is conveyed to consciousness. Thus dreaming … may yet be said to revitalize the mind-brain in an associative and integrative manner.Margaret Wilkinson, Changing Minds in Therapy
So, it would seem that this type of sleep, REM sleep, with deep, intense dreams often involving symbol and metaphor, is essential to the health of the organism, and has an important role to play in avoiding anxiety and depression.
Tending to Our Sleep and Dreams
So it would seem that sleep, and particularly the deep dreaming part of sleep, has an important relationship with staying in a healthy mental state. Sleeping well is importantly connected with staying in an integrated, emotionally regulated place, while tending to our dreams can actually contribute to our becoming integrated, learning, adapting individuals.
These and other forms of self-compassion and self care are all important elements of the journey to wholeness. Working in a good supportive relationship with a /a-midlife-transition can be of tremendous assistance in this process.