We’re all fully aware that sleep, and a lack of it, impacts the body. But it also plays a substantial role in mental health too, either bringing on mental health conditions or exacerbating existing ones.
If you’ve been feeling a direct connection between sleep deprivation and mental health, read on to explore the various ways sleep affects mental health with information and tips from a professional.
The relationship between sleep and mental health
Sleep deprivation can easily result in worsened mental health. The two have a bidirectional relationship that anyone can experience. Specifically, a lack of sleep can trigger the onset of certain conditions—and conversely, mental health conditions can worsen sleep problems.
“A lack of sleep can impact our physical, mental, and emotional health,” says Sarah Bitar, marriage and family therapist. “With the disturbances of sleep come disturbances of all other connected systems of operation in the human body.”
She adds that one of the fastest-appearing effects of lack of sleep is brain fog.
“Brain fog is a cognitive expression of chemical imbalances in the body, which are also expressed through emotional distortions,” explains Bitar. “Emotional distortions could facilitate mental illness over time—and the longer that sleep acts as an unresolved issue in one’s life, the longer that these mental health challenges linger amongst other contributing factors.”
In other words? That brain fog you’re experiencing from a bad night’s sleep could eventually lead to poor mental health.
Bitar notes that although a lack of sleep can absolutely lead to mental health disorders, many people don’t realize that sleep disturbances in themselves are considered mental health challenges by the medical community.
So, does low-quality sleep cause mental health conditions, or do existing mental health conditions disturb sleep quality? Bitar says that this is very much a “chicken or the egg” situation.
From a professional standpoint, Bitar would gather as much information about one’s sleep patterns as possible and then treat this pattern according to what plays a role in it. Some questions she would ask include:
- Did you experience any recent major changes in your life?
- Did you begin taking any new medications or change the dosage of an old one?
- How’s your physical health (diet habits, injuries, allergies, chronic pain)?
- How’s your sleep hygiene?
- Which of these sleep issues do you struggle with the most: difficulty falling asleep, difficulty staying asleep, frequent nightmares, night terrors, or sleepwalking/talking?
- Do you notice any theme for the thoughts and emotions that come up when you address your sleep issues?
- How do you feel about your sleeping space/bedroom?
You can ask these questions of yourself to discover some patterns and themes, and, in turn, possibly discover where your sleep issues may be stemming from.
“By resolving some of these issues, you are likely to experience improvements in your sleep and overall mental health,” Bitar says.
Sleep apnea and mental health
Although it may not seem like it, there is a connection between sleep apnea and mental health. Research shows obstructed sleep apnea (OSA) occurs more frequently in people with psychiatric conditions, which heightens your risk of mental distress.
Bitar says that in one 2017 study, it was found that individuals with sleep apnea were substantially more likely to report unmet needs for mental health care, despite reporting greater mental health service use.
“Additionally, they found that individuals with sleep apnea are more likely to report suicidal thoughts,” she says.
Bitar goes on to say that various studies have been conducted on the link between sleep apnea and mental health, mostly coming to similar conclusions as to how strongly related the two are.
“Preventative mental health care is recommended for those who suffer from early signs of sleep apnea in order to build adaptability toward this condition over time,” Bitar advises.
Ways to improve sleep and mental health
Since there’s an obvious link between sleep hygiene and mental health, both areas of your life can be substantially improved if you change your habits.
1. Commit to a morning and nighttime routine
A balanced, healthy body tends to thrive on routine, which is why it’s essential to stick to a morning routine and nighttime sleep ritual. This can include getting up at the same time every day, going to bed at the same time every night, meditating in the morning and evening, and generally adopting calming practices that focus on self-care.
As part of your routine, Bitar suggests avoiding eating two to three hours before sleep, avoiding stressful conversations at night, and putting away electronic devices at least an hour before bed.
2. Create a sleep environment that promotes deep relaxation
When you’re getting ready to go to sleep, you should feel good in your space. To make your bedroom as peaceful and sleep-promoting as possible, Bitar recommends minimal light, appropriate mattress firmness, a tidy space, white noise or meditation music, and essential oil therapy.
3. Speak to a doctor and/or mental health professional
“Speaking to a doctor about this matter can help you understand the severity of any comorbid conditions that you may be overlooking in your treatment, as well as help you initiate a healthier lifestyle as a way to minimize the impact of your sleep issues,” Bitar says.
By determining how sleep manifests in your mental health, a professional is likely to help you minimize this impact by building healthy coping tools which can allow you to maintain a regulated nervous system, Bitar explains.
“A regulated nervous system acts as a foundation for regulated emotions and, in turn, a balanced mood,” she says.
Bitar adds that there are many “healing modalities” that exist today that can help people sleep better. “It may just be a matter of time before you find your perfect recipe—don’t give up,” she says. (Here’s how antidepressants affect your sleep.)
Is your anxiety causing you to lose sleep? Check out our guide to insomnia for tips on how to cope.