Busting Myths About Sleep

by | Jul 10, 2018 | Self Compassion

Esther Lee, Psychologist, Baulkham Hills NSW

10 July 2018

I’m sure no one would disagree with me when I say that sleep is a crucial part of our daily lives. The National Sleep Foundation recommends 7-9 hours of sleep for adults, 8-10 hours for teenagers, and 9-11 hours for school-aged children in order to maintain healthy functioning. There is a unanimous view that sleep is closely related to not just our physical wellbeing but also our emotional and psychological wellbeing.

In fact, sleep disturbance is one of the core symptoms of depression and anxiety. Research has found that insomnia in a non-clinical population is a risk factor for later development of depression, and unresolved sleep symptoms after treatment are a major risk factor for relapse.

In my clinical work, I have met people who reported various myths about sleep and misunderstandings about it’s association with mental health.

Since myths about sleep are common, I would like to share a few and explain why they are not correct.

Myth 1: The best cure for sleep problems is medication

“Why would anyone need psychology sessions for insomnia? I just need some sleeping pills to knock me out at night!”

It’s true that some sleeping pills, when taken correctly and appropriately, can help to establish regular sleeping patterns. However, it is also true that our bodies can build up a tolerance to these substances. In addition, prolonged consumption of medication can potentially lead to physical and psychological dependence. Rather than focusing on symptom relief, the more important issue to consider would be the underlying cause of the insomnia. Psychological intervention can help to identify and change unhelpful beliefs and practices that function to maintain insomnia and assist you to get a better night’s sleep.

Myth 2: alcohol helps manage sleeping problems

“I sleep better on nights that I have a glass of wine with my sleeping tablets.”

Using alcohol to get to sleep just masks the issues that are causing disrupted sleep in the first place. It can also disrupt the overall quality of your sleep, increasing fatigue and reducing overall effectiveness the following day.

Many believe that the “calming effects” double if they consume alcohol and medication at the same time. This can potentially be a harmful combination that can lead to various health risks (e.g. coma, breathing problems).

myth 3: teenagers should have the same sleep pattern as adults

“These days, my teenage daughter doesn’t sleep until 12am on most nights. I think she might have depression or anxiety.”

Although difficulty falling asleep is definitely one of the core symptoms of depression and anxiety, it doesn’t necessarily warrant a diagnosis. In fact, it is normal for teenagers to experience a shift in their biological sleep patterns. I have also witnessed some teens intentionally delaying their bedtime for a variety of reasons, such as expressing their independence as a response to bedtime rules enforced by parents or engaging in the latest computer game that everyone else in class is playing. However, it would be wise to monitor other symptoms of depression and anxiety (e.g. mood changes, lack of appetite, complaint of physical discomfort, school refusal, social withdrawal) and to seek support if other indicators are present.

myth 4: Sleep interventions don’t work

“None of the sleep hygiene strategies work for me!”

Sleep hygiene refers to practices and habits that assist and promote good quality sleep. These strategies are effective when they are practiced regularly and consistently. Practising sleep hygiene just for a couple of days is definitely not enough.

Sleep hygiene practices include: limiting daytime naps, regular exercise, going to bed and waking up at similar times each day, monitoring caffeine intake, creating a comfortable bedroom atmosphere, and engaging in winding down practices before bed.

Myth 5: Difficulty falling asleep = insomnia

“I sometimes have difficulty falling asleep, so I must have insomnia.”

If you are experiencing trouble with sleep once in a while, you don’t need to be alarmed. It is actually normal for us to have a couple of days where we toss and turn. For example, many would agree that the night before a big presentation at work is not the most peaceful night’s sleep. However, it would be helpful to seek help if sleepless nights are happening at least 3 nights per week for more than 3 weeks. It would also be helpful to keep a sleep diary with information about caffeine intake, naps, exercise, time spent winding down, time spent in bed, wake up time etc. and identifying any unhelpful patterns.

What next?

Want more information or support around establishing healthy sleep patterns? If you think you, or some you know, may benefit from having some support with establishing healthy sleeping patterns, please contact The Talbot Centre for more information.

Esther Lee

Psychologist, Baulkham Hills NSW
Esther works with children, adolescents and adults with a variety of presenting concerns and from various cultural backgrounds. She has worked in both hospital and community settings, gaining valuable insight into how mental health issues influence social, family, vocational and educational realms of life, and potentially distort how we see ourselves.