How Sleep Impacts Mental Health – And Vice Versa

On average, each human being sleeps for 26 years over the course of their lifetime. This means that those who are able to get a “good night’s rest” each night, are asleep for a quarter to a third of their lifespan. Sleep is easily one of the most important activities we do each day. Unfortunately for many, myself included, sleep does not come easily. 

sleep and mental health

According to the CDC, one in three American adults do not get adequate sleep. “Enough” sleep is defined as getting an average of seven hours of sleep each night. Reading that statistic, I know that I fall into the third of Americans who are in need of sleep support. Why is it that so many of us do not get enough sleep? What happens if we are chronically sleep-deprived? Turns out, there are many reasons that we don’t sleep enough – and not sleeping enough can cause significant harm.

What causes sleep deprivation?

There are numerous reasons for why people experience sleep deprivation, like lifestyle choices, poor sleep hygiene, work responsibilities, sleep disorders, etc. Lifestyle choices that impact sleep deprivation often include watching television late into the night, consuming alcohol or caffeine in excess, or having an inconsistent sleep schedule. Work responsibilities that impact sleep typically include inconsistent scheduling, like shift work or 24-hour shifts that are common for emergency responders. Sleep disorders and sleep hygiene will be discussed further below.

Poor sleep influences our lives in many ways. Common impacts of sleep deprivation include slowed cognition or thought processes, poor concentration, trouble with memory, risky decision making, low energy, and changes in mood. These changes in mood include increased stress, irritability, and/or anxiety. These common impacts can be felt fairly quickly with sleep deprivation. If your sleep deprivation persists long term, you may be at risk for more serious consequences including: diabetes, obesity, cardiovascular disease, immunodeficiency, hormonal abnormalities, pain, and persistent mental illness.  

How does sleep impact mental health?

As a therapist, I see a strong relationship between my clients’ experiences of mental health issues and sleep issues. The age-old adage of “what came first, the chicken or the egg?” comes to mind. Are mental health problems caused by sleep issues, or is the sleep issue caused by a mental health diagnosis? I am learning that more often is the case that sleep issues are leading to more severe mental health problems.  Here are some common mental health disorders and how poor sleep can exacerbate them:

Depression: Poor sleep is a symptom of depression, meaning that it is believed that depression causes poor sleep. However, sleep researchers hypothesize that poor sleep can also increase other depression symptoms. This relationship can create a negative cycle that leads poor sleep and other symptoms of depression to worsen simultaneously. If someone prioritizes sleep hygiene while experiencing depression symptoms, it is likely their depression and sleep will improve.

Anxiety: Research indicates that if someone has an anxiety disorder and they aren’t sleeping adequately, their anxiety symptoms can more easily be triggered. This is likely due to less ability to engage in anxiety coping skills because of poor cognition and focus.

Bipolar Disorder: Both mania and depression (the two hallmarks of bipolar disorder) influence a person’s perceived need for sleep. However, research indicates that sleep patterns change often before a manic or depressive episode begins. If someone with bipolar disorder is able to recognize their change in sleep patterns and regulate their sleep, their experience of mania or depression will likely be less severe.

ADHD: Those who have ADHD have increased challenges with focus and concentration. If someone with ADHD also experiences sleep deprivation, their abilities to focus and concentrate will be more severely impacted.

How to improve sleep hygiene

You might be realizing that your sleep is impacting your mental and/or physical health. Positive change often involves improvement of sleep hygiene, or behavioral and environmental practices that are the building blocks of good sleep. Some tips to improve sleep hygiene include:

  • Have a consistent sleep routine. Try to go to bed within the same two-hour time frame and wake up within the same two-hour time frame each day. The more consistent you are, the better the impact.
  • While trying to improve sleep, avoid napping during the day. This will help your body relearn what times you will be sleeping.
    • What about power naps? Glad you asked. If you have a stable sleep and wake time, but find that you are particularly tired during the day, a power nap can be helpful. Power naps are only effective if they are twenty minutes long or less – otherwise, you risk falling fully asleep. Here are further tips on how to take an effective power nap.
  • Ensure your bedroom is quiet, dark, and at an appropriate temperature.
  • Use your bed for only two activities: sleep and intimacy. Anything else may make your brain associate your bed with activities that are energizing and not relaxing.
  • Avoid screens for at least an hour before bed. If you *have* to beat that last level of Candy Crush, try to utilize blue light blocking glasses. Also, turn down the brightness on your screen to avoid overstimulating your eyes. 
  • Avoid alcohol, caffeine, and added sugars for at least an hour before bed, if not longer. Each of these substances are show to impact the body’s natural circadian rhythms.
  • Move your body each day. Adding movement to your routine will support your body in naturally resting during sleep times.

If your sleep issues persist or you have a sleep disorder…

While improving sleep hygiene can lead to improvements, it is not enough for all people. If you continue to experience challenges with sleep, make an appointment with your physician to undergo further testing, like a sleep study. Sleep studies help identify common sleep disorders and can determine if specific interventions and/or medication might improve your sleep experience.

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About Sarah Kelly

Sarah Kelly is a licensed social worker and certified alcohol and drug counselor. Sarah received her MSW from Loyola University and Chicago and currently works as an individual and group therapist for Clarity Clinic Chicago with an emphasis in addiction and trauma work. While Sarah believes that therapy is a significant and often necessary tool to foster personal and community wellness, Sarah believes in caring for the whole person and whole community. Sarah works towards this value by engaging in Chicago’s running and yoga communities, tapping into several book clubs and indulging in the bachelor. Sarah hopes to support you in the process in discovering what brings you value in yourself and your community.