Mental Health and… Sleep

Everyone’s mental health is different. No two people experience their environment in the same way, and so the pressures and difficulties we face at LSE are as diverse as the student body itself. This blog is an exploration of how people from all walks of life approach and understand their mental wellbeing, be it with diagnosable conditions or just dealing with the pressures of university life.

I turned up to this week’s interview in a slightly pessimistic frame of mind – being hungover and needing coffee after a late night at AU Ball doesn’t exactly breed optimism. It’s fitting then, that this week’s interviewee was really keen to talk about one topic in particular: sleep.

To some people this topic may seem to belong to a column on healthy living, not on mental health. But the intersection of routine and our state of mind is very worthy of attention. How can we ensure we get enough sleep when we’re stressed and feel the need to get work done? What impact can not sleeping have on our mental health? And why don’t we discuss it?

These are complicated questions, which all hint at the tension between our physical needs our academic and social lives. Indeed, it can often feel that we face a choice between enough sleep and a fulfilled and stress-free life. But where does this come from? The answer, argues this week’s interviewee, lies in a misunderstanding of how important sleep can be.

As we sit down to a cup of coffee in a Pret near campus (my third of the day), my good friend bears no signs of the all-nighter he recently pulled. Engaging and perceptive, his thought processes are visible in his eyes as he explains his decision to put work before sleep. This strategy, he complains, was not a sensible way of getting work done: he was tired, and the essay he wrote certainly wasn’t his best. But the choice to stay up all night poring over an essay isn’t a particularly rational one. In a culture of glorification of hard work, it can seem almost appealing to forgo sleep to put the finishing touches on an important or long essay. While it may not actually lead to a good piece of work, the satisfaction of feeling like someone who works hard can often override this obvious truth.

While this culture of academic pressure is well-established, the impact it can have on our mental health through the channel of sleep is not. How does forgoing rest impact how we feel about ourselves?

The answer, claims my friend, is that losing sleep in itself reduces our emotionally energy for many days after – either we lie in and feel bad about ourselves for having missed lectures, or we get up early the next day and feel irritable or stressed. The emotional impact of this lack of sleep can lead very quickly to feelings of inadequacy as we link it back to our work. I’m angry because I didn’t sleep, and I didn’t sleep because I wasn’t on top of work is an all-too-common thought process, that can make us feel that we are unable to manage both ourselves and our workloads. Indeed, this thought process becomes harder to dismiss when we’re tired, the very time that it is at its strongest.

Underpinning all of this discussion of the impact of sleep on mental health is implicit comparison to others. “Why am I asleep when my friend is at the library?” Or conversely “Why am I having to stay up late to work when my friends have been in bed for hours?” are both questions that we can all relate to. Indeed, this week’s interviewee discusses how his slightly later sleep cycle being than slightly later than those of his flat mates often makes him feel down about himself. This comparison may never be spoken, but it can often plague us at our most sensitive times – late at night, or on days when we haven’t slept properly.

But why does this clear impact of sleep on mental health remain undiscussed? It’s hard to say. One factor may be that sleep is the invisible part of our lives: a good night’s sleep is assumed by those who don’t live with us, and it can be difficult to accept that major impact that it can have on our waking hours. Starting discussions about this, as any topic related to mental health, is important. But more important is our attitude towards it – can we really justify bragging about our all-nighters on social media when it’s so obviously unhealthy both for ourselves and others? Maybe it’s time to close snapchat, get some sleep, and finish that essay in the morning.


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