The Relationship Between Mental Health and Sleep

There’s an undeniable, inextricable link between our quality of sleep and mental health

When we get plenty of z’s, we awake ready to face the day at our best cognitive potential, with positivity, clarity and alertness, which ensures we feel refreshed, energized, well rested and focused for whatever life throws our way. Then think about how we feel after we can’t seem to catch a single wink: fatigued, irritable, moody, sluggish, lost in a hazy, low-energy brain fog.

Look at sleep as an essential human need — it’s absolutely imperative to our physical health. But how does lack of sleep affect mental health? Strong scientific evidence suggests a close relationship between sleep and mental health. Statistics show sleep deprivation may increase our risks for developing mental disorders, and mental health issues may impact our quality of sleep.

Depression and Sleep: How Are They Linked?

What can cause a lack of sleep? Insomnia is rooted in a number of factors, such as:

  • Feeling stressed over work, money matters or housing
  • A disruptive sleeping environment — i.e. sleeping somewhere uncomfortable or noisy
  • Health conditions or sleep disorders — i.e. sleep apnea
  • Medications that can disrupt sleep cycles
  • Being a caregiver or parent, sleeping in short spurts
  • Recreational drugs or alcohol
  • Working night shifts or unconventional hours
  • Physical ailments or trauma
  • Going to bed too late to get the recommended 7–8 hours of sleep per night

How are some of these examples linked to poor mental health? During sleep, the hippocampus in our brains undergoes a process called neurogenesis, creating new neural connections linked to memory, emotion and mood. When sleep is impaired, the neurogenetic process may suffer and contribute to a risk of depression, as well as schizophrenia, drug addiction and other disorders during the person’s waking hours.

There may also be genetic factors at play, too. Those genetically predisposed to anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder and similar mental health issues may also be at risk of poor sleep patterns. An individual’s history of trauma may also contribute to insomnia, since it may affect their arousal systems and leave them hyper-vigilant, or frequently “on guard,” affecting their ability to relax and sleep deeply and peacefully. 

A Vicious Cycle

Mental health problems and disorders can continue to disrupt sleep in a myriad of ways — and, in turn, compromised sleep can perpetuate said psychological issues. Examples include:

  • Anxiety or mania can compel the mind to race or produce repetitive, negative thought patterns — or, in more severe cases, create panic attacks when it’s time to sleep.
  • Flashbacks or nightmares from past trauma or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can disturb sleep patterns or leave one afraid to fall asleep.
  • Those suffering from schizophrenia, paranoia or psychotic disorders may hear voices that may awaken them.
  • Sleep issues are just one possible symptom in women suffering from postpartum depression.
  • Eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa and bulimia can contribute to disrupted sleep flow. 
  • Dissociative disorders may cause problems in the sleeping-waking cycle, exhibited in behaviors such as sleepwalking, sleep talking or sleep paralysis.

Likewise, sleeping more rather than less is often symptomatic of depression and seasonal affective disorder (SAD), likely as a way of fleeing the problem.

Left unchecked, mental health issues can create other risk factors beyond sleep deprivation.

“While insomnia can be a symptom of psychiatric disorders, like anxiety and depression,” notes the Columbia University Department of Psychiatry, “it is now recognized that sleep problems can also contribute to the onset and worsening of different mental health problems, including depression, anxiety and even suicidal ideation.”

Tips for Better Sleep and Mental Health

Nearly 50 percent of insomnia cases are linked to depression, anxiety or psychological stress, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). NAMI notes that the underlying traits and symptoms of a person’s sleep disruption can be helpful in determining what role mental illness may play in their inability to sleep.

Thankfully, there are ways to treat insomnia and develop better sleep habits:

  • Maintain a regular sleep schedule. Go to bed the same time every evening and avoid stimulating activities before bedtime that can keep you awake.
  • Avoid eating too soon before bedtime.
  • If you’re tossing and turning, practice relaxation techniques such as deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation and mindfulness.
  • Curb mobile device usage a few hours before bedtime, and avoid bright lights that can keep you awake.
  • Use herbal remedies and prescription medications sparingly so as not to disrupt falling and staying asleep.
  • A healthy diet, regular exercise and avoiding caffeine and afternoon/evening naps after 3pm are healthy daytime habits to develop.

Rest Easy With Minnesota’s Leading Sleep Clinic

If you’re having difficulty sleeping or experiencing any of the disrupted sleep patterns listed in this article, Whitney Sleep is here to help. Left untreated, sleep disorders can lead to increased risk for heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure and motor vehicle accidents.

If you feel impaired sleep may also be impacting your mental health, talk to your doctor about where to receive the right treatment. Through a combination of talk, behavioral and sleep therapy, a sound slumber doesn’t only need to be in your dreams. Interested in having a sleep study done? Get in touch with our sleep specialists today to schedule an appointment.