Insomnia is a common problem throughout the world. According to estimates, it is believed to affect approximately 33% of the world's population. Even people without chronic insomnia often struggle with sleep problems. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), a third of adults in the U.S. report that they get less than the recommended amount of sleep each night. Because of this, it is important to understand the potential impact that lack of sleep may have on health, including mental health and well-being.
The Relationship Between Sleep and Mental Health
It’s no secret that sleep plays an important role in good physical and mental health. Sleep deprivation can leave you feeling irritable and exhausted in the short-term, but it can also have serious long-term health consequences as well. Lack of sleep is linked to a number of unfavorable health consequences including heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and depression.
Some psychiatric conditions can cause sleep problems, and sleep disturbances can also exacerbate the symptoms of many mental conditions including depression, anxiety, and bipolar disorder.
Research suggests that the relationship between sleep and mental health is complex. While sleep has long been known to be a consequence of many psychiatric conditions, more recent views suggest that sleep can also play a causal role in both the development and maintenance of different mental health problems.1
In other words, sleep problems can lead to changes in mental health, but mental health conditions can also worsen problems with sleep. Lack of sleep may trigger the onset of certain psychological conditions, although researchers are not completely certain of the underlying reasons for this. Because of this circular relationship between your sleep patterns and your mental state, it is important to talk to your doctor if you are having problems falling or staying asleep.
If you’ve ever struggled to get through the day after a night of tossing and turning, you are well-acquainted with the disruptive effects of sleep deprivation. Mood changes including increased irritability and anger can make it much harder to cope with even the minor stresses of daily life.
Poor sleep can make it much more difficult to cope with even relatively minor stress. Daily hassles can turn into major sources of frustration. You might find yourself feeling frazzled, short-tempered, and frustrated by everyday annoyances. Poor sleep itself can even turn into a source of stress. You might know that you need to get a good night's sleep, but then find yourself worrying that you won't be able to fall or stay asleep each night.
Insomnia and other sleep problems can be a symptom of depression, but more recently, research has implicated lack of sleep in actually causing depression.
One analysis of 21 different studies found that people who experience insomnia have a two-fold risk of developing depression over those who do not have problems sleeping.2 The question then is whether helping people improve their sleep might actually lessen their chances of developing depression.
Researchers suggest that addressing insomnia early-on may be an effective preventative measure to help reduce the risk of depression, although more study into this possibility is needed.
Treating insomnia is obviously an important way to help improve psychological health and the possibility that such treatments may also be an effective tool for preventing or even treating mental health problems is promising.
In a study looking at more than 3,700 participants, researchers investigated the impact of poor sleep on symptoms of depression, anxiety, and paranoia.3 Some of the participants were treated with cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) for their insomnia, while others did not receive any treatment. The researchers found that those who had received CBT also showed significant reductions in depression, anxiety, paranoia, and nightmares. They also reported improved overall well-being, including their ability to function at home and work.
The recommendations for treating poor sleep or sleep disturbances are generally the same whether or not you have a psychiatric condition. Preliminary approaches usually focus on lifestyle changes you can make that can help you get a better night’s sleep. Avoiding sleep interrupters (such as caffeine, nicotine, and alcohol) and practicing good sleep habits are examples of lifestyle changes you can make that can help.
In addition to seeking help from medical professionals, there are also steps that you can take on your own to improve your sleep and well-being. Having good sleep hygiene, or practices that support sleep, are critical to staying rested and avoiding daytime sleepiness.
Some things you can do:
Limit napping. Too much sleep during the day can have an effect on your ability to fall or stay asleep at night. Naps of 20 to 30 minutes a day can help you feel more alert and rested without interrupting your nightly sleep.
Establish a nightly routine. Stick to a set of habits that help prepare you for rest each night. Take a bath, read a book, or practice a few minutes of meditation to calm your body. Repeat these routines each night to help set the mood for a solid night’s sleep.
Avoid caffeine or stimulants too close to bedtime. Consuming coffee, soda, or other caffeinated products in the late afternoon or evening can make it difficult to fall asleep.
Turn off your devices. Watching television or playing on your phone at bedtime can make it more difficult to relax and settle down for sleep. Try setting limits on when you quit using your devices before bed.
Talk to a mental health professional if you suspect that your sleep problems might be caused by or contributing to a mental health condition. Depression, anxiety, and other psychiatric disorders can interfere with sleep—but addressing your sleep problems may also have a positive impact on your psychological symptoms.