Most people are familiar with the feeling: For one reason or another, you don’t get enough sleep and for the rest of the day (or longer), you just feel off. A disruption in your body’s natural rhythm is more than just a lack of sleep, but it can feel similar. It keeps you from getting the rest you need, and research shows that circadian rhythm and mental health may be more strongly linked than some had previously thought.
In this piece, we’ll discuss the issue of circadian rhythm: what it is, how it affects mental health and wellness and what to do if you find yourself unable to get into a consistent daily (and nightly) routine.
What Is Circadian Rhythm?
Circadian rhythm describes the internal synchronization between the day-night cycle of the world and your body. This natural link is sometimes called your body clock and is the primary reason why people wake up in the morning, stay alert during the day and go to sleep at night. It’s not just that humans all agreed to follow a certain schedule — our bodies are telling us what to do for the preservation of our own well-being.
Links Between Circadian Rhythm and Mental Health
When circadian rhythm is disrupted, issues can occur. One study tracked the circadian cycles of of 91,000 subjects, using a device that measures decreased activity during the day and increased disruptions during the night, a way to assess whether a person has a consistent daily schedule.
The study found that people who had less consistency in their routine were at higher risk for mood disorders, major depression and bipolar disorder.
Can a Healthier Sleep Pattern Improve Mental Health?
One of the core factors of healthy rhythm is a constant sleep schedule. We should be getting enough sleep, starting and ending at a similar time every day. The alternative is startling. A study in Psychiatric Times found that people with sleep disorders, such as insomnia, are at an elevated risk for suicide.
Not to mention that being consistently well-rested will give you more energy to face the day. It’s easy to get overwhelmed by work or school, or react poorly to stress when you’ve underslept. Getting enough sleep is also linked to optimal cognitive function, meaning you’re at your best when you’re alert and energetic.
What’s Keeping You From Consistent Rhythms?
Now that we know the connection between a consistent daily rhythm and mental health, we have to understand the factors that might be keeping you from being in sync with a healthy day-night cycle. Some of the causes are more common than others:
Stress: Excessive, prolonged stress has been shown to affect sleep, which means it also affects circadian rhythm. Sometimes, stress about family situations, work and other sources is unavoidable, but finding ways to manage stress effectively so that it doesn’t affect other parts of your life can be critical.
Lifestyle: Sometimes, rhythm disruptions can be the result of the schedule a person keeps (or doesn’t keep). People who stay up excessively late playing video games or watching TV, or who sleep at random times during the day, can find themselves feeling like they’re in a prolonged fog. This may be due to the effect the lack of a consistent routine can have on the brain.
Screen Time: The visible light spectrum plays a major role in regulating our body clocks. Near the invisible end of the spectrum, blue light helps to regulate the signals that tell our bodies when it’s time to go to sleep and when it’s time to wake up.
One significant source of blue light is the backlit screens on tablets, computers, phone screens and some televisions. This means that while scrolling social media in bed seems like a harmless way to wait for sleep, it may actually be keeping you awake by exposing you to blue light that tells your body to stay alert. To prevent this, many devices have a setting where the regular light settings can be changed to night mode, which replaces harsh white-blue light with a softer orange-yellow range.
This is just one of the reasons why experts think that too much screen time is damaging to our mental health.
How Cycles and Consistency Can Help
The best way to avoid a negative link between your circadian rhythm and mental health is to try to stay on a consistent schedule. Set yourself time ranges in which you try to do certain things each day to make sure you’re not disrupting your routine.
For example, you could set your alarm clock to 7 a.m. every morning, eat breakfast between 9 and 10 a.m., lunch between noon and 1 p.m., and dinner between 6 and 7 p.m. every day. Odds are, you’ll also find that keeping a consistent routine every day helps you go to sleep at the same time every night.
Some people are more sensitive to changes than others, so even things like getting up early and exercising when you usually don’t can have an effect on the way you feel. Be aware of how these changes are affecting you and make them gradually and as needed.
When to Seek Help for Sleep and Cycle Problems
Issues like chronic insomnia and other sleep disorders are often addressed with habit-forming medication or by just learning to live with it. Neither of these are true solutions — in fact, they may worsen the issue over time.
There’s a specific type of therapy aimed at helping people with issues maintaining a consistent, healthy routine regulate their day and night cycles. It’s an evidence-based therapy called interpersonal and social rhythm therapy, or simply IPSRT. In the simplest terms, IPSRT is way to condition people to keep to daily routines when it comes to sleep, behavior and social interactions because of the potential benefits of consistency on mental health. IPSRT has been used to great effect for people with specific conditions, such as bipolar disorder.
Mental Health Treatment at FHE Health
The powerful link between circadian rhythm and mental health is just one of the reasons why having access to quality mental health treatment matters. The cause of mental health issues is not always easy to see, and mental health specialists have the experience and expertise to figure out the best approach in every case.
To learn about your options for mental health care, contact FHE Health today.