Sleep and Emotions by: Marta Wilson, MA, LMFT

Nov 05, 2012

Each day in Adult IOP, group members start with check-in, identifying what feelings they are currently experiencing. Sad, happy, anxious, overwhelmed…but often the list starts with “tired”.

If a new member starts with “tired”, veteran group members know what’s coming next. “She won’t let you check in with tired, it’s not a feeling!” they will gleefully proclaim to the new member.

As helpful as it is to be able to differentiate emotions from physical or energy states, I’ve come to acknowledge that checking in with “tired” can be useful in a different way. It can plant the seed of connection between emotions and energy, the mind and the body. If one is sleep deprived, emotions may be deadened or heightened because the brain as well as the body has not rested. “Tired” can increase vulnerability to depression and anxiety and make it harder to activate coping skills which might help. In other words, “tired” can change “annoyed” into “angry”,  “unsettled” into “anxious”, “down” into “depressed” or anything into “numb”.

Tracking the connection between the often-elusive good night’s sleep and emotional states can bring attention to how important sleep is. We know that sleeping problems are often involved with mental health issues of all sorts, sometimes arising from the issue itself and sometimes from the medications prescribed to treat the symptoms. Disturbed sleep is a common symptom of depression. Likewise, it’s hard to fall asleep if your mind won’t stop going over and over…and over and over all the worries you have.

When the system is stressed, it produces more cortisol which can interfere with sleep which produces more cortisol. Talk about a double-bind!  Besides medications, there are some behavioral strategies which can be helpful for getting a good night’s sleep. This is called “sleep hygiene” and consists of a routine which helps the body and mind get used to calming down in the same way every night.

Sometimes it’s a hard sell to get an overloaded, already stressed person to commit to a sleep routine, but  after a while of checking in with “tired, fearful, overwhelmed, depressed” or “finally got some good sleep, comfortable, unsettled, a little down”, it gets easier to make the connection. And the more we make these connections and work to change the things we can, the more we realize it is possible to change things for the better.

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