Last Updated on December 31, 2022
We are still learning about the in-depth relationship between sleep and mental health but studies show they may be more closely linked than we originally anticipated. For many years we have been running on the theory that mental health inconsistencies can lead to sleep disturbances. In fact, new evidence suggests that being deprived of sleep often leads to mental health issues, and not the other way around. This brings up some important questions when it comes to treating mental health and sleep quality. Is it better to treat the symptom or the cause? What will produce the quickest results? What will produce the most long term results?
If you or someone you know suffers from depression, anxiety, stress, insomnia, or any other type of sleep disorder keep reading to learn more about the surprising links between mental health and quality of sleep.
What lack of sleep does to your brain
How does sleep affect mental health? Lack of sleep will make you groggy, irritable, easily distracted, slower to respond, impair memory, and may even lead to some more serious long-term health effects like depression if you continue to get an inadequate amount of sleep on a regular basis. Why is sleep so important for daily functioning? The answer lies mostly in your brain and its ability to function.
Findings from a recent clinical study published in the nature medicine journal show that sleep deprivation diminishes your brain cells’ ability to accurately communicate with one another. This lack of proper communication can even lead to memory lapses and impaired visual perception in some cases.
Basically, lack of sleep can make it harder to focus, harder to recall ideas from your memory, harder to create new memories, and harder to react to outside stimuli (these symptoms can be even more pronounced if you already suffer from ADHD as well). If you don’t catch up on missed sleep, these problems will only get worse and your brain functionality will continue to decline at a surprisingly rapid rate. Don”t underestimate the power of sleep when it comes to a healthy brain and body.
The relationship between insomnia, depression, and sleep
Sleep and mental health are closely linked, especially when it comes to insomnia and depression. It is estimated by Harvard Health Publishing that as many as 90% of people with depression also suffer from sleep disturbances, the most common being insomnia and sleep apnea but with sleep apnea being far less prevalent. How do medical professionals explain this link between lack of sleep and depression? We don’t have all the answers yet, but here is what we do know:
So, what are the psychological effects of sleep deprivation, and is insomnia a mental illness? Not necessarily but insomnia and other sleep disorders can often be a major contributing factor to the development of mental illness. New research is beginning to show that insomnia often occurs in patients before signs of depression appear suggesting the sleep disorder is the actual cause of the depression. This is why patients with insomnia are advised to address their personal mental health issues along with other insomnia specific recommendations.
A clinical study conducted by researchers at the Sleep and Circadian Neuroscience Institute of University of Oxford cites that treating insomnia will improve depression, anxiety, and lack of sleep paranoia. This implies again that depression is one of the many symptoms of insomnia. Poor sleep lies the foundation for many complicated health conditions even if they are not noticeable short term.
Is sleep good for depression?
For some, depression causes increased sleepiness and may make it hard to wake up because sleep provides an emotional and psychological escape. For others, depression brings about sleep issues that make falling asleep and staying asleep extremely difficult. If you fall into the latter category of depression, which most patients with depression do, sleep can actually help lessen the disorder and improve mental health once achieved.
Studies suggest that patients with depression who also have a sleep disorder, like insomnia, are less receptive to depression treatment than patients without a sleep disorder. This means getting good sleep is an important precursor to achieving active recovery and a stable, healthy mind. Quality sleep can be very beneficial for people with depression.
Can sleep deprivation cause anxiety?
Sleep deprivation and mental health problems can often be the result or cause of higher levels of anxiety as well. Experts estimate that as many as 50% of adults with a generalized anxiety disorder also experience problems sleeping. While insomnia may be a small risk factor when it comes to developing an anxiety disorder, it poses a greater potential of contributing to the development of major depression.
Unfortunately, lack of sleep and anxiety can often have a cyclical relationship that only makes the problem become worse and results in actions such as skin picking. For example, anxiety can make it hard to go to bed, fall asleep, and stay asleep. This anxiety caused by lack of sleep can then cause further anxiety about losing sleep, and the cycle continues.
Similar to depression, insomnia can make coping with anxiety disorders more difficult. Lack of proper sleep can also make you more resistant to any anxiety disorder treatments or medications prescribed by your doctor or medical professional.
How sleep affects stress
Considering all we have learned so far, this should come as no surprise but, the benefits of sleep on mental health are linked even further when it comes to stress. Stress can lead to anxiety and loss of sleep, which we already know can lead to depression, sleep apnea, even more sleep loss, and heightened anxiety. Stress can often trigger this vicious cycle which then negatively affects your mental health overall.
Getting an adequate amount of sleep on a regular basis can help you deal with stressful situations that arise throughout the day. As we mentioned above, getting enough sleep diminishes irritability and enhances your brain’s cognitive functionality. In simpler terms, quality sleep equals lower stress levels.
While stress in our lives is not entirely avoidable, although for some it easier avoided than others, we can all learn to deal with stress better especially if it results in better mental health and happier life overall. This is not to say that dealing with stress differently will solve all of your problems, but experts agree it can definitely help.
The relationship between ADHD and sleep
ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) is generally known for limiting attention span, the ability to sit still, and the ability to self-control but you may not know it also can cause sleep disturbances. Approximately 25% to 50% of children with ADHD also experience sleep problems that cause them to get less restful sleep and less sleep overall. Of course, this lack of quality sleep leads to unstable moods, trouble concentrating and making decisions, and irritability, all of which are only exacerbated by ADHD. While good sleep may be hard to achieve with ADHD, its benefits could be overwhelming so don’t give up.
The relationship between sleep and mental health are so closely intertwined that it is often hard to tell where one starts and another begins. For this reason, attaining the proper amount of quality sleep should be prioritized.
If you have trouble falling asleep at night try these tips before consulting a professional:
- Limit your caffeine intake and stop consumption in the early afternoon so it doesn’t keep you awake when it’s time for bed.
- Set a specific bedtime for yourself and stick to it. Creating a routine around this time will also help alert your brain that bedtime is approaching.
- Exercise regularly to release any pent up energy and reduce stress levels. We recommend working out at least a few hours before bedtime so you will have time to relax and slow down before trying to fall asleep.
- Try stretching or meditating before bed to increase relaxation.
- Avoid bright lights and backlit screens, like tablets, computers, or televisions for at least one hour before bed. The harshness of the light can prevent you from feeling tired.
- Don’t sleep in, even on the weekends as this could prevent you from falling asleep at the appropriate time that evening.
When it comes to your mental health you shouldn’t cut any corners or make any sacrifices, this includes being sleep deprived. So remember to promote and facilitate quality sleep in your daily life, you never know how much it could change and improve your mental health.
Lindsay is a contributor and the senior editor of all content posted on this site. She is in this role due to her somewhat unrivaled expertise through previous retail experience in the mattress and bedding industry.