Understanding the Complex Relationship Between Sleep and Mental Health

    Written By: Somnus Therapy

    Mental health and sleep share a multi-faceted relationship. While mental illnesses can affect how well you sleep, poor sleep can also negatively impact your mental health.

    According to Mental Health America, nearly 20% of adults around the world are battling mental illness[1]. Anxiety is the most common mental disorder, with major depression and bipolar disorder ranking second and third.

    Additionally, 62% of adults around the world claim they don’t sleep well on a consistent basis[2]. Ongoing sleep deprivation can worsen or even trigger certain mental health conditions. For example, a lack of sleep can lead to increased anxiety and many anxiety disorders make it difficult to sleep. The more you know about how mental health and sleep are related, the better equipped you’ll be to tackle your sleep disorder and reach a more stable and healthy place, both mentally and physically.

    How Sleep Affects Mental Health

    Sleep is important for most brain and body functions that enable you to function in daily life. Sleep promotes cognitive function, memory prowess, stress management, and helps you regulate your emotions. It also allows for muscle growth and recovery. Long-term sleep deprivation can even affect how you view the world and your perception of reality. Not only are these symptoms and side effects unhealthy but they can be dangerous for some people.

    Studies show that poor sleep quality and lack of sleep can increase your risk for mental health disorders[3]. Common sleep disorders including insomnia can worsen or trigger certain conditions including depression, anxiety, and suicidal tendencies. Research also shows that otherwise healthy people may experience increased distress levels and anxiety following a poor night’s sleep. Sleep disturbances are also linked to worsening psychiatric symptoms. In extreme cases, they can increase your risk for suicide. Long-term sleep deprivation can increase your negative emotional response to stress while decreasing how often you experience positive emotions. Over time, you may find it increasingly difficult to deal with normal daily stressors. This can lead to low self-esteem and self-worth, which quickly manifests into depression.

    How a Mental Health Diagnosis Impacts Sleep

    Those plagued by depression, anxiety, or extreme stress often find it difficult to fall and stay asleep. This is known as insomnia and is the most prevalent sleep disorder among adults. In one study, nearly half of the participants with insomnia also suffered from mental illness[4].

    Not all sleep issues or disturbances are created equal. The type of sleep trouble you experience is directly correlated to your mental illness. Here are some examples.

    • Anxiety disorders: Racing or repetitive thoughts at night can cause unnecessary stress and worry. Some patients experience panic attacks before bed or while trying to fall asleep. The inability to fall asleep can increase your stress levels and worsen anxiety symptoms.
    • Depression and SAD (seasonal affective disorder): Not all sleep disorders make it harder to fall asleep. In some cases, you may find yourself overly tired or lethargic. Both depression and SAD can cause you to stay in bed for longer periods of time, sleep more often, and feel less energetic. These erratic sleep patterns disrupt your body’s natural sleep-wake cycle or circadian rhythm.
    • Mania: Manic disorder is often associated with feeling elated, energetic, and aroused. All of these emotions make it difficult to fall asleep. When you don’t feel tired at night you may find yourself engaging in awake activities that don’t promote sleep but instead, sabotage your efforts. Racing thoughts are also associated with manic disorders and may trigger insomnia.
    • Psychosis: People with psychosis or paranoia may hear voices or experience hallucinations that make it difficult to sleep. These disturbances can be frightening, wake you from a deep sleep, or keep you awake at night.
    • PTSD: Post-traumatic stress disorder impacts millions of people around the world. Experiencing or witnessing traumatic events including war, abuse, or death, can cause intrusive thoughts, images, and emotions that impact daily life, including sleep. Nightmares and night terrors are common in those with PTSD.

    Tips for Battling Mental Health and Insomnia

    Because mental health and sleep are so closely related, addressing one can sometimes help ease symptoms caused by the other. For example, treating your anxiety can reduce racing thoughts at night, making it easier to fall asleep. When you have a better night’s sleep, you may find that your stress levels are lower and you’re better able to regulate your emotions.

    Here are a few techniques for easing symptoms caused by some mental illnesses that may also help improve your sleep quality. A doctor or specialist can recommend certain medications to help with this as well.

    Adopt Stress-Reducing Habits

    Stress is one of the most common side effects of any mental illness. Whether you’re facing depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, or another psychiatric condition, your stress levels are on high alert. These spikes in adrenaline and cortisol levels directly impact your ability to function and sleep. By incorporating stress-reducing habits into your daily routine, you can ease stress, clear your mind, and learn to better regulate your emotions. All of these positive changes will also improve your sleep quality.

    Meditation and mindfulness are two common techniques used to reduce anxious thoughts and restore your brain and body to a more peaceful state. Here, you can think more clearly, make rational decisions, regulate your emotions, and achieve quality sleep. Perform a nightly routine before bed that involves calming both your brain and body. Avoid using electronic devices at least 60 minutes before going to bed. Invest in self-care practices like listening to soothing music, taking a hot bath, or drinking chamomile tea. The human body thrives on routine. When you perform the same tasks each night leading up to bedtime, your body recognizes these behaviours as cues for sleep. Not only will this reduce your anxiety over going to sleep but may also promote deeper, longer, and more restorative sleep.

    Cognitive behavioural therapy for insomnia can offer more tips on designing a lifestyle that’s conducive to sleep. These same techniques are used to treat symptoms associated with certain mental illnesses.

    Keep a Journal

    Journaling is another common practice used in therapy for both mental illness and sleep disorders. Keeping a journal is the perfect way to purge your thoughts and feelings without judgment. You can use your journal in any way you see fit. This may include detailing your day, expressing any worries or concerns you have, or documenting your personal and professional goals and aspirations.

    Write in your journal at the same time each day. You can do it in the morning before you leave for work, on your lunch break, or before bed. Journaling helps you organize your thoughts, let go of any worries or stress that’s plaguing you, and prepare for the day or night ahead. It’s also a useful tool for documenting the thoughts and behaviours that are triggering your sleep troubles. Releasing these ideas on paper is also beneficial for reducing stress, anxiety and racing thoughts associated with certain mental illnesses.

    Exercise

    Exercise does more than just promote good physical health. It’s also a valuable tool for maintaining a healthy state of mind. Physical activity helps reduce stress and increase feelings of happiness, relaxation, and focus. This is due in part to the brain’s release of endorphins during exercise. Endorphins like dopamine and serotonin help regulate emotions while boosting your energy levels and self-confidence.

    Incorporating physical activity into your daily routine also promotes quality sleep. When you exercise in the morning, you’ll experience an initial boost of energy that carries you through the day. You may even feel more focused and productive. At night, your brain and body will be more tired and better prepared for sleeping. Avoid exercising too close to bedtime which might make you feel too alert and aroused to fall asleep.

    Invest in Your Sleep Quality and Mental Health

    Sleep is essential for functioning in daily life. During sleep, your brain and body have time to rest, recover, and repair themselves. It’s during sleep that your brain forms memories and makes mental connections between pieces of information. Sleep supports your ability to learn new things and perform necessary tasks. Without adequate sleep, you’re also at greater risk of developing certain mental illnesses including anxiety and depression.

    If you’re already facing a mental health diagnosis, lack of sleep can worsen symptoms and impede the recovery process. Mental health and sleep go hand-in-hand. Fostering one can help strengthen the other. This is why neglecting one can have catastrophic effects on the other. Investing in your mental health and sleep quality is an investment in your overall happiness and wellbeing.

     

    Reference

    1. Mental Health America. (2022). ‘Prevalence Data 2022’. Mental Health America. Available at: <https://www.mhanational.org/issues/2022/mental-health-america-prevalence-data> [Accessed 1 August 2022].

    2. Single Care Team. (2022). ‘Sleep Statistics 2022: How Much Sleep Should You Get?’ SingleCare. 20 January. Available at: <https://www.singlecare.com/blog/news/sleep-statistics/> [Accessed 1 August 2022].

    3. Columbia Pychiatry News. (2022). ‘How Sleep Deprivation Impacts Mental Health.’ Columbia University Department of Psychiatry. 16 March. Available at: <https://www.columbiapsychiatry.org/news/how-sleep-deprivation-affects-your-mental-health> [Accessed 1 August 2022].

    4. Imran S. Khawaja, M.D. (2017). ‘Sleep Disorders and Mental Illness Go Hand in Hand. UT Southwestern Medical Center. 22 May. Available at: <https://utswmed.org/medblog/sleep-disorders-mental-illness/> [Accessed 1 August 2022]

    Topics: Mental Health

    Dr Katherine Hall

    Dr Katherine Hall

    Dr Katherine Hall is a Sleep Psychologist who specialises in treating insomnia. She holds degrees with specializations in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Insomnia. With over 13 years of clinical experience working in the public and private sectors, Katherine is dedicated to improving sleep health.

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