We all know there are steps to take to improve our mental health. Meditation and yoga, reduced phone and computer use, participating in physical exercise – these are just some of the activities experts advise can help us feel better and reduce stress. But did you know that sleep (and the lack thereof) can be a significant contributor (or hindrance) to your mental health?


Let’s look at some interesting benefits to sleep, both your nightly zzz’s and the occasional power nap. Some you may recognize, and some may surprise you!

  1. Helps Maintain Memory and Improves Learning
    We’ve all had that experience of not being able to think straight when we’re tired. At night, our brain clears out toxins that have built up during waking hours which are bad for brain cells. This out with the old allows for the in with the new attitude you often have in the mornings. Studies that help scientists understand neurological diseases like Alzheimer’s and dementia support the need for sleep and demonstrate its importance to memory. When REM sleep (rapid eye movement, the deepest state of sleep) is reduced, we simply cannot think clearly.
  2. Improves creativity
    As an extension of #1, a rested brain works more efficiently. This theory was tested by researchers at UCSD, who found that subjects who experienced the most REM sleep reported a 40%  increase in creativity than those whose sleep patterns were disrupted. So, while some artists may say sleep deprivation increases their inspiration, it truly doesn’t improve creativity.
  3. Reduces Hyper-Arousal
    Anxiety levels are heightened in trauma survivors, even those who are not suffering from PTSD, which can disturb sleep patterns. The deepest state of sleep, REM, is vital to allow the mind and body to enter a relaxed state. Without that, both the amygdala and prefrontal cortex of the brain can become fatigued, resulting in the inability to manage emotions. Any parent recognizes this when their young children are sleep deprived: they become emotional, prone to crying fits and temper tantrums. This same heightened sense exhibits itself as hyper-arousal in those recovering from a traumatic experience or in a state of extreme stress. 
  4. Combat Negativity and Low Self-Esteem
    When tired, our general attitude suffers. Those recovering from trauma often have low self-esteem as a result of the trauma. It makes sense, then, that caring for yourself with rest can counteract those negative feelings. With the connection between physical and mental health, tending to your physical needs directly correlates with your emotional needs.

Knowing all we do about the benefits of sleep, and combined with the full schedules most of us manage, napping can bolster your nightly sleep quantity. A short 20 or 30 minute power nap in the afternoon is natural to the body, which is designed for sleeping about 8 hours after rising in the morning. If you commonly feel sluggish (both physically and mentally) in the afternoon, you could benefit from an afternoon nap. A short nap prevents you from entering REM sleep, a 90-minute cycle, which can leave you feeling groggy and out of it when you wake up in the middle of it. 

As a bonus, drinking a caffeinated beverage right before you nap can help you wake up feeling even more refreshed. Since it doesn’t kick in right away, you are likely to fall asleep before the effects begin.

I love a good nap. And now that I know there’s science to back it up, I might just stop scheduling afternoon meetings!

Photo by Dan Gold on Unsplash