Mental Health and Sleep

By Alesandra Woolley

May 13th, 2021

In the same way that a car requires a fuel source like gas to operate properly, so too does the brain. In the case of our brains, sleep is the fuel.

Without proper sleep, our minds begin to slow and are unable to operate at their full potential. If sleep deprivation becomes a chronic problem, the toll on your mental health can become even more severe. 

In this guide, we’ll share all of our resources that take a deep dive into the complex relationship between sleep and mental health, including how these two aspects of health are inversely related, the consequences of sleep deprivation on the mind, and the link between sleep disorders and mental health disorders.


The Connection Between Sleep and Mental Health

Sleep and mental health have a reciprocal relationship; lack of sleep impacts mental health, and vice versa. When mental health is suffering, sleep issues arise. If you’re experiencing poor sleep or having trouble sleeping in general, it damages your mental health. 

Sleep is the mind’s time to rest and recharge. When we get proper sleep, memories, emotions, and new information are processed and filed away for our minds to retrieve later on. Sleep is also the time emotional processing takes place. 

If you’re sleep deprived, it will start to take a toll on your mental health in the form of emotional instability, irritability, forgetfulness, trouble concentrating, and increased stress all because you didn’t give your brain and body time to recharge.

Learn more about the connection between our sleep and mental health in our resources below. 


Stress

Cortisol is a hormone produced by the adrenal glands that plays a big role in our “fight or flight” response. It’s important for cortisol levels to be properly balanced, but when we don’t get enough sleep, too much cortisol is produced. 

Excess cortisol levels puts our body in a constant state of stress, and makes relaxing difficult. This is the reason individuals under a lot of stress struggle with insomnia—the increased amounts of cortisol keep them awake!

We know stress has a number of detrimental effects on the body, including impaired thinking, weight gain, and the inability to control emotions. The worst part is, sleep deprivation and stress contribute to a negative feedback loop that can be difficult to break and often results in mood disorders, anxiety disorders, and depressive disorders.

See our resources below to learn about the connection between sleep and stress, along with some techniques for reducing stress for better sleep.


Trauma and Grief

Sleep disturbances are extremely common in those who experience trauma and grief. Often lasting for months, the sleep loss people experience while grieving and/or after a traumatic event can be detrimental to their well-being. 

It’s important to remember that you aren’t alone in your challenges, and there’s a sleep solution that can be found for everyone. Learn more about the sleep problems people face while dealing with trauma/grief and how to cope in our resources below.


Mental Health Disorders

Traditionally, clinicians believed sleep disorders were a symptom of mental illness. Now, current research suggests sleep problems may raise risk for, and even directly contribute to, the development of some psychiatric disorders. 

But it’s not that simple. The link between sleep health and mental health is stronger and more complicated than ever. It’s important to note that the relationship between these two ailments varies in severity and complexity across different disorders.

One mental illness may develop in part due to a specific sleep disorder, but it can also be a symptom of the same mental illness — creating a positive feedback loop. Some mental issues may show no causal relationships with sleep at all. And some sleep disorders have no relationship with mental disorders whatsoever.

Some mental disorders stem from sleep health itself too. Orthosomnia, or the obsession with “a perfectionistic quest for the ideal sleep in order to optimize daytime function,” as the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine terms it, is a new phenomenon. It is a psychological reaction to the ability to track your sleep, respond to the data, and attempt to attain that perfect 7- 9 hours of sleep that is recommended by the National Sleep Foundation.

Learn more about the connections between sleep and mental health disorders in our resources below.

What happens when you don’t get enough sleep?

You know what it feels like to wake up after a rough night – that slow, groggy, can-barely-keep-your-eyes open feeling. Your brain’s a little fuzzy and you can’t concentrate. Most of all, you’re annoyed. At everything.

That bad mood you feel when you’re tired? That’s pretty common. When you have poor sleep quality, you tend to feel more sad, irritable, stressed and angry. You’re more emotionally reactive – you might be more likely to snap at someone or take offense. And it doesn’t take much for most people to go from “well-rested and happy” to “tired and cranky” – just one night of bad sleep can have an effect on your mood.

The reason for this link between sleep and mood is likely a little part of your brain called the amygdala, the area that processes your emotions. According to a study published in the Journal of Neuroscience, when you experience sleep loss, your amygdala sees more activity. At the same time, your prefrontal cortex – the part of your brain responsible for decision-making and emotional control – sees less. That combination of brain activity is a recipe for heightened emotions.

Chronic sleep problems and mental health

Sometimes, a lack of sleep can mean more than just waking up cranky. Chronic sleep problems can lead to a higher risk of mood disorders, like depression and anxiety. At the same time, mental health issues can also be the cause of serious sleep deprivation.

Related: How to solve sleep problems using science

Research has shown that 15-20% of people diagnosed with insomnia will develop major depression. Other studies have estimated that people with insomnia are five times more likely to develop depression and 20 times more likely to develop panic disorder. And insomnia is often an early indicator of mood disorders, used to help diagnose depression and anxiety.

Insomnia isn’t the only chronic sleep problem that can lead to mental health issues. Other disorders that disrupt healthy sleep can have a similar effect. People with obstructive sleep apnea – which causes breathing problems to continually disrupt sleep patterns throughout the night – are five times more likely to have clinical depression.

Improving your sleep (and your mood)

If you tend to fall short of your recommended sleep, don’t panic – or reach for the sleeping pills (yet). There’s a lot you can do to combat unhealthy sleep habits and boost your mood.

These tips for better sleep can help get you back on a more normal schedule and improve your sleep:

Stick to a schedule

Repairing your sleep hygiene and making an effort to go to bed and wake up at the same time (yes, even on weekends) can help your body’s clock adjust to a healthy sleep schedule. 

Limit naps

It’s tempting to nap when you’re low on sleep, but it doesn’t actually help in the long-term. Skip the naps and go to bed when you’re tired at night instead. 

Create a bedtime routine

When you’re still alert and active from the day, you’re not ready for bed. As Professor of Sleep Medicine Colin Espie recommends at Sleepio.com, “The answer is to consciously set aside time each evening to relax before heading to bed, and plan a wind-down routine to follow.” Create a bedtime routine that’s relaxing for you – whether that’s meditation, a walk or a good book. 

Set up for sleep

To foster a good night’s sleep, your room should be comfortable, relaxing and clean. Lisa Artis at The Sleep Council advises, “Create a sanctuary to sleep in. Messy bedrooms make for a messy mind, so de-clutter.” Keep your room neat (that means making your bed, too!) and eliminate outside lights and noise. Plus, make sure you’re sleeping on the best mattress for you. You can take our Mattress Finder Quiz to help you find what’s best.

Avoid caffeine, alcohol, and nicotine

Don’t worry – no one’s going to take away your morning coffee. But the more you cut out these sleep-interfering chemicals, the faster you’ll be able to fall asleep.   

Plan your exercise and meals

Regular exercise and a healthy diet can actually help you sleep better. But don’t exercise or eat too close to bedtime to make sure your body is relaxed and ready to rest.

And if you’ve tried these tips, but it’s still not doing the trick, there are still other natural remedies for getting better sleep.