How to improve sleep habits to support emotional wellness, according to a therapist

By John Duffy, CNN

Editor's note: Psychologist John Duffy, author of "Parenting the New Teen in the Age of Anxiety," practices in Chicago. He specializes in work with teens, parents, couples and families.

    (CNN) -- I worked recently with a 25-year-old man struggling at his job. He described difficulty thinking clearly and missing too many days. And his relationship with his girlfriend was nearly over due to his admitted neglect. Diagnosed with both depression and anxiety, he said he felt disengaged in his life. He had been in therapy before for a couple of years, and had tried medications for depression, anxiety and attention issues. Nothing seemed to work.

I asked one question that I always ask: How's your sleep?

I wasn't surprised when he told me his sleep patterns were "terrible." He would sleep four to six hours per night during the week, staying up until 2 a.m. or 3 a.m. on social media, or binge-watching a TV show. He tried to make up for sleep on weekends but sometimes woke up feeling even more tired.

His sleeping patterns were established in childhood and carried into his adult life. As we gradually shifted his sleep habits, adding sleep time during the week and creating set a bedtime and wake time, his symptoms began to diminish. Within two months, he reported nearly no depression or anxiety. Our primary interventions involved changing his sleep habits.

Sleep and mental health

As it turns out, our sleep patterns correlate very closely with our degree of emotional wellness. Adults should be getting at least seven hours of sleep per night, though 1 in 3 fail to reach that minimum, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

When I ask my clients to track their rest time, they find they get far less sleep than they think they do. Our poor sleep patterns can drive the stress that contributes to anxiety, depression and our ability to focus.

Poor sleep also disrupts engagement in activities that support emotional wellness. In fact, teens with irregular sleep patterns over the course of the week can experience "social jet lag" starting Monday morning, putting them behind in terms of both performance and connection with others. This can drive not only a decrease in performance academically, but tardiness, missed days, and a lack of readiness to learn. I have found this dip in performance and preparedness to be true among my adult clients as well.

Finally, too many families I've worked with experience chaotic evenings, with to-do items, homework or conflicts carrying on late into the night. Various screens contribute to the hectic, disruptive and unsettling tone of too many households.

I find that the development of better sleep habits is among the quickest, most effective ways to improve mental well-being for an individual or a family.

Here are a number of manageable ways to improve sleep rapidly in your home.

Leave the devices behind

So many of my clients end their days in bed looking at one screen or another, scrolling through social media or watching videos. Over the past several years, addiction to smartphones has become a common referral issue in therapy practices.

Addiction to smartphones can drive sleep difficulties, especially when phones are used later at night, according to a recent study of college students published in Frontiers in Psychiatry.

That's why I encourage my clients to keep cellphones and other screens out of the bedroom altogether, substituting a book, meditation or calming music. Mindfulness exercises can also be helpful, even for children.

I find that this change alone improves sleep quickly, and symptoms of emotional difficulties tend to lift, to some extent, as well. Removing loud music, bright light and other stimulation from bedrooms will also help.

Develop good sleep hygiene together

I find that families tend to share sleep habits, that they tend to be fairly consistent, for better or worse, within a household. So, you can actually model good sleep for the rest of your family. If you would like to see your kids or spouse get better sleep, set a clear bedtime for them, and for yourself. Do the same for waking up.

Consistency will help you all develop healthy sleep habits rather quickly -- and don't get too discouraged if this change takes a little time. Just like it takes time to create poor sleep habits, it will take some time to develop healthier sleep hygiene. Make gradual changes, like dialing back your bedtime 15 to 30 minutes a week. Over time, you'll find you are getting the sleep you need without the frustration of forced, immediate change.

Perhaps the most potent method for improving sleep is adding exercise into your day. A survey by the National Sleep Foundation reported that people who exercise vigorously on a regular basis were almost twice as likely to report high-quality, regular sleep. And sleep comes more easily to people who build exercise into their daily routines.

Think of sleep as a process that starts at least one hour before you actually go to bed. Create an atmosphere of winding down in your home. Watch a light episode of a favorite family show together. Protect some time to read. Dim the lights, and set the late evening apart from the remainder of the day.

These are powerful interventions that will help set a tone that suggests sleep and rest.

No time like the present

Many sleep issues become apparent at the onset of the school year. Since kids tend to start the academic year with poorly regulated sleep, scaling back bedtime in small increments can resolve sleep issues quickly.

If I can get one of my teenage clients to sleep even half an hour more nightly, their symptoms diminish and their performance at school, work, sports and other extracurriculars improves noticeably.

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With improved sleep, my adult clients describe less depression and anxiety, more clarity at work, and more enjoyment in their days.

Make some of these changes now, develop better household sleep habits, and help manage depression and anxiety, for yourself and your family for a lifetime.

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