Why the Relationship Between Sleep and Mental Health Is a Two-Way Street

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Have you ever noticed how your mind reacts to a poor night’s sleep? Do you feel sad, anxious, stressed, or unable to concentrate well? Those are some examples of the negative consequences of sleep loss on one’s mental health.

At the same time, living with a mental health problem can influence how well you sleep.

It’s an endless loop in which sleep disturbance is both a cause and a consequence of mental health issues. Can you break this vicious cycle?

Here, we’ll discuss how poor sleep affects mental health and vice-versa. We’ll also show you how to fix your sleep and achieve a healthier mind.

How Does Lack of Sleep Affect Mental Health?

Sleep is essential for a healthy body and mind. But we live such busy lives that we often neglect it. After all, who hasn't juggled working, studying, spending time with family, exercising, and taking care of household chores, all in just 24 hours?

The National Sleep Foundation recommends that healthy adults get between 7 and 9 hours of sleep per night. But this is not everyone’s reality, as 32.8% of people in the United States say they don’t sleep enough. Furthermore, 62% of adults worldwide can’t sleep well when they go to bed.

This is concerning because sleep helps the brain make sense of our emotions. When we sleep, the brain stores memories of things we experience during the day. It also helps remove the feelings associated with these memories. That's why “sleeping on it” can help you feel better after experiencing something difficult.

When you don’t get enough sleep, you may feel negative emotions more intensively, while positive emotions may not feel as good. You may also notice that it becomes harder to react consciously to stressful events.

This can influence your mood, cause mental health problems, or worsen the symptoms of pre-existing mental or chronic illnesses.

Related: Soothing Tips to Help You Sleep When Painsomnia Strikes

 

Effect of Inadequate Sleep on Common Mental Health Conditions

Lack of sleep or poor sleep quality is linked to several mental health conditions. Here we’ll discuss its impact on the three most common mental illnesses, depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

How Sleep Affects Depression

The relationship between sleep and depression is complex and can work in both directions. This means that depression can cause sleep disturbance, and poor sleep makes you more likely to develop depression.

Insomnia is the most common sleep disorder, and it involves problems falling or staying asleep. A study published in the Journal of affective disorders showed that people who live with insomnia are two times more likely to develop depression than those who don’t.

One possible explanation is that poor sleep changes the levels of serotonin and dopamine, two chemical messengers that help regulate our mood. Also, being constantly worried and stressed about not sleeping is a contributing factor.

Having depression, on the other hand, makes your sleep more vulnerable to everyday stressors. An argument with a loved one or a busy day at work can result in difficulty sleeping or more awakenings during the night. This may explain why 75% of adults with depression develop insomnia.

How Sleep Affects Anxiety Disorders

If you live with anxiety, you know how difficult it can be to go to bed with an unquiet mind. You worry about what happened during the day, things you could have done differently, and, most importantly, things that are yet to happen in the next few hours (sometimes months).

When you look at the clock, it's already 3 am, and you only have a few more hours of sleep. It's a vicious cycle where you can’t sleep well because you're anxious, and not sleeping makes you worry.

Breaking this cycle is vital, as studies show that lack of sleep makes it harder for people with anxiety to regulate their emotions. Triggering events can seem even more threatening, worsening the symptoms.

How Sleep Affects Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

Sleep and PTSD are closely linked. People with PTSD may find it difficult to initiate and maintain sleep. They often wake up during the night and experience frequent nightmares.

At the same time, sleep problems can contribute to the development of PTSD or worsen the symptoms in those who already have the condition. This can result in a loss of quality of life.

Tips to Improve Your Sleep and Mental Health

With a well-rested mind, it becomes easier to get through difficult times. A 2021 review looked at 65 studies reporting interventions to improve sleep in patients with different mental health conditions. The authors found that improving sleep caused a significant improvement in depression, anxiety, and stress.

Practice Sleep Hygiene

One of the simplest ways to improve sleep is to adopt healthier sleep habits, also known as sleep hygiene. Everyone can practice it by following these tips:

Dos

  • Set a bedtime that is early enough so you can get at least 7 hours of sleep per night.
  • Try to go to bed and wake up at the same time every day.
  • Make sure your sleeping environment is pleasant. This involves a comfortable mattress and bedding. The temperature should be between 15.6 and 19.4 degrees Celsius. Keep the room dark, quiet, and well-ventilated.
  • Practice regular physical activity.
  • Have a relaxing bedtime routine. This may include having a warm bath, meditating, or listening to relaxing music.
  • Use your bed only for sleep and sex.
  • Expose yourself to the sunlight during the day.
  • Only go to bed when you're sleepy.

Don’ts

  • Avoid using smartphones and tablets at least 30 minutes before bed. Studies show that these devices emit blue light, which may interfere with sleep.
  • Avoid having large meals before bedtime. Your body will produce hormones that help in digestion and can harm sleep. Plus, painful gases can get in the way of a good night's sleep.
  • Avoid stimulant drinks, such as those containing caffeine, that can keep you up at night.
  • Drinking alcohol before is associated with a poorer quality of sleep. This will make you wake up more tired and probably in a bad mood in the morning after.
  • Limit your fluid intake at night, so you don’t wake up needing to go to the bathroom.
  • If you can't sleep, don't toss and turn all night. Get up and do a relaxing activity (reading, meditation). Go back to bed when you're sleepy.

If none of that works and you continue to have sleep complaints, seek medical advice. A trained healthcare professional will recommend the best treatment for you.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Insomnia (CBTI)

One of the most common treatments for breaking the cycle of insomnia and depression/anxiety is cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia (CBTI). CBTI helps you identify and replace thoughts and behaviors that may contribute to your sleep problems. The technique helps resolve the symptoms in 70-80% of the patients.

Take Care of Yourself

As we mentioned before, treating sleep disorders helps improve mental illness symptoms. What about the opposite?

According to a study published in 2017, patients experience less sleep disturbance as depressive symptoms improve. However, difficulties may persist.

Treating anxiety can also help reduce sleep problems in those with anxiety disorders, according to a study published in 2015.

Takeaway

Good quality sleep and a healthy mind go hand in hand. If you feel that your sleep is not ideal, seek medical help. This will make a big difference in your quality of life and well-being.

If you live with a mental health issue, be sure to get regular checkups. Controlling your symptoms will help you sleep better.

Photo by cottonbro studio

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I’m a Biologist, Ph.D. in Psychobiology, Biotechnology specialist, and owner of Medlink, a Medical and Scientific Communications company. 

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