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Can a Lack of Sleep Really Drive You Mad?

Disturbed nights and mental illness have always been linked. Now research shows insomnia is not just a symptom, but a cause.

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Exactly why lack of sleep can have such a profound effect on our psychological and emotional well-being is a question that scientists are just beginning to tackle. But one key factor may be that when we don't get enough sleep, the part of the brain behind our foreheads that controls our thoughts, behaviours and emotions (the prefrontal lobe) doesn't function efficiently. Our rational mind, the executive centre that keeps us on an even keel, is overwhelmed by our feelings, no matter how negative.

That said, just because you don't sleep well -- and on any given night one in three of us will have difficulties sleeping -- it certainly doesn't mean you're necessarily going to develop anxiety or depression or indeed any other psychological problem. In most cases, sleep problems are just one among several contributory factors.

Nevertheless, the message sent by this new research is that persistent sleep problems, once trivialised as merely a symptom by psychologists and psychiatrists, may actually play a key role in determining our mental health. If you can sort out your sleeping, you'll be reducing the risk of developing psychological and emotional problems. If you're already battling these problems, better sleep can be a crucial -- and non-pharmaceutical -- weapon in your armoury.

Happily, there are several tried-and-tested ways to combat sleeplessness. As a first step, exercise every day -- it'll tire you out. Avoid caffeine, alcohol, or nicotine in the evening. Develop a relaxing evening routine -- maybe take a warm bath or spend some time reading. Try listening to gentle music or doing a relaxation exercise. Have a bedtime snack, though go for something healthy and relatively plain.

Get your bedroom right for sleep -- that means a comfortable bed and a room that's quiet, dark, and your preferred temperature. Resist the temptation to lie in, and cut out daytime naps -- you'll only find it harder to fall asleep at night. Learn to associate your bed only with sleep, so don't use it, say, for reading, eating, watching TV, or writing a diary. (Sex is permissible, though.) Only go to bed when you're very tired and, if you're not asleep within 20 minutes, get up and do something relaxing for a while.

"Insomnia is like hiccups," Bob Dylan once commented. "Everybody has a cure but none of them work." For once the great man is wrong. We can all improve our sleep. And in so doing, we may also be helping to safeguard our mental health.

Daniel Freeman is a Wellcome Trust clinical psychologist at the Institute of Psychiatry, King's College London. Jason Freeman is a writer and editor. They are the authors of "Know Your Mind: Common Emotional and Psychological Problems and How to Overcome Them."

 
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