The Key to Being a Better Friend? Get Better Sleep

Sleep can help you feel calmer and emotionally balanced, making overall friendships less stressful.

Two friends hugging each other
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Back in 2012, my neighborhood was hit by Hurricane Sandy. It left me displaced from my home for three months. During that time, I stayed with one of my relatives; their living room couch became my bed for the duration. I was also in my first semester of grad school and that stress, along with dealing with a natural disaster, had taken a toll on my mind, body, and overall well-being. I was exhausted from carrying the weight of my fatigue within my body. I was mentally and physically depleted, not just from stress, but also from the lack of sleep.

When I think about this time in my life, I remember always feeling on-edge, like I was glass placed on the edge of a nightstand, getting ready to tumble, crack, and break. My emotional cup was always empty, which meant I also had very little tolerance for dealing with other people and their feelings. A lack of sleep was turning me into an emotional time bomb, and I was always exploding.

I was snappy. I was easily defensive and often short-tempered. I had become the person many friends felt like they had to walk on eggshells with because no one knew when I was going to lash out emotionally. I didn’t have the capacity to hear people. This was impacting my relationships immensely.

But what this experience taught me was that getting enough sleep was vital for my being a good friend.

When waking up on the wrong side of the bed becomes literal

In the U.S, studies have shown that sleep-related problems impact 50 to 70 million Americans across all ages and socioeconomic backgrounds. Sleep deprivation is a common issue. But what’s important to note is that sleep deprivation does not just impact the individual, it can impact their social circles and the health of their relationships with others.

That is because there is a link between sleep and mood.

On the days when I wake up tired from a night of restlessness and lack of sleep, I tend to feel on-edge, irritable, and easily agitated. I am almost always less productive and more caffeine-dependent to get me through the day.

When a person wakes up on the “wrong side of the bed” and is groggy, it almost always has more to do with their lack of quality sleep. When we don’t get adequate sleep, our brains do not get the chance to recuperate, causing neurons to become overworked. It becomes more difficult for the brain to tap into previously learned information that we need to get us through our day, or cope with stressors that can continue the cycle of poor sleep.

Without the ability to tap into previously learned information, there is a detrimental impact on our executive functioning skills, which are the mental processes that we tap into when we are trying to self-regulate. These are also the skills that help us to plan and achieve goals, focus, organize, and maintain a sense of self-control.

Ways sleep and relationships connect

1. Sleep helps us make good decisions

When you wake up exhausted and unable to concentrate for a full day ahead, whether that day holds brunch plans with friends or a meeting-filled workday, you might also notice a difference in the way you show up, perform, or manage your interpersonal relationships. Without consistent, adequate sleep, your ability to communicate healthily through empathy and compassion suffers because your judgment becomes impaired, whether that judgment involves reading intention, deciding on the best action, or something else entirely.

Fatigue from sleep loss also affects your ability to make sound decisions and manage professional relationships. This can lead to errors while performing routine and otherwise-familiar tasks, or even making impulsive decisions without taking the time to process and think clearly.

If you find yourself making mistakes on a project or failing to be a collaborative colleague — and it feels new and out of character — it could be important to take some time to reflect and see if a lack of quality sleep could be the culprit.

2. Sleep allows us to feel the feels

Many people who struggle with sleep deprivation are often also struggling with a mental health issue, such as anxiety, depression, or trauma. When people are prone to mental health issues, they are already at risk for poor emotional regulation — poor sleep adds to that risk. Emotional regulation is simply being able to process, manage, and experience emotions in a healthy manner. People who can self-regulate tend to be more resilient and better able to cope with stressors in life.

In my personal experiences, a lack of sleep often affected my ability to self-regulate. Dealing with my own personal life stressors and the impact it had on my mental health led to poor feelings management, and left me little room for me to be the best person I could be in my relationships. I would become defensive, easily triggered, or feeling emotionally dysregulated.

To change this, I did the work of creating boundaries around the things that interfered with my ability to get quality rest at night. This included limiting my screen time an hour before bed, putting my phone on Do Not Disturb, and allowing myself to find ways to release my emotions before bed through writing and journaling practices.

3. Sleep powers our ability to maintain social relationships

Our mistakes and self-sabotaging habits are sometimes more linked to a lack of sleep than we realize. With chronic fatigue, I wasn’t able to enjoy being social and living in the moment. I couldn’t plan for the right amount of rest, so would be anxious and irritable, showing up chronically late to many functions and meet-ups.

Research also shows that supportive relationships are positively associated with good sleep quality. So until sleep is prioritized, not only are we impacting our well-being, we may be forgoing the quality of relationships and social health. Adequate sleep helps us to engage in relationships in a healthy way because we can be the best version of ourselves when we are in social settings. Good sleep charges us to engage with people and events in a positive, joyful way.

How I took control of my sleep

Learning to be a better friend, in many ways, can start with getting a good night’s rest and developing a sleep regimen. There are many ways to approach getting better sleep at night.

Creating boundaries to protect your sleep schedule

As I stated before, setting boundaries is probably one of the healthiest practices that you can engage in to sleep better at night. A few ways I practiced this way by:

  1. Placing my phone on Do Not Disturb not just during bedtime, but in the daytime when I wanted to take a nap. This option has a feature that allows specific people to break through the DND function in case there is an emergency  
  2. Limiting screen time by disengaging from my phone about 30 minutes before bed. To ensure I did this I would place my phone in a different part of the room so that I would have to get up and make it inconvenient to scroll  
  3. Limiting the amount of requests or social invites I allowed when I knew I would be in a bad mood or didn’t have the energetic capacity to show up for others 
  4. Admitting to my friends when I didn’t have the capacity to hear them vent or complain because my ability to listen and my judgment were impaired 

Having a healthy bedtime routine

We all have routines and habits, however, it’s important to assess whether or not they are healthy for managing our well-being. What helped me sleep better also made me feel better, such as:

  • Adjusting the temperature and ensuring I wasn’t too cold or hot. The optimal temperature for sleep is 60-67 degrees, but depending on where you live and how you sleep, you may have to adjust 
  • Practicing my skincare routine and hygiene habits played a great role for me. Taking a shower closer to my bedtime helped my body regulate and relieve stress, especially in certain parts of my body like my back. High-pressure showers work wonders to relieve tension. A clean washed face also helps to feel refreshed and better at night. 

If these practical approaches are things, you’ve tried and haven’t worked for you, there are more in-depth measures that you can take.

Therapy to help address root causes of mental distress

It’s worth talking to a mental health professional to help you to see if your mental health disorder is the cause of your sleep disturbances. Depression and anxiety are known to coexist with insomnia or even hypersomnia. Talking to a professional can help you discover ways to manage your mood and create better habits around sleep at night.

Medication to address health symptoms

When you’ve dealt with sleep deprivation for long periods of time, it can be worth seeking help from a psychiatrist or your primary care physician. Taking the route of medication either short-term or long-term may help with reducing initial barriers so you have the motivation and energy to build a routine for better sleep at night. Talk to your doctor about your fears, concerns, or questions to best strategize on next steps to take to meet your needs.

A good night’s rest plays a huge role in healthy relational dynamics as well as overall day-to-day functioning. In what ways are you working on getting good sleep at night?