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How Sleep Affects Mental Health

Medically Reviewed by Dan Brennan, MD on June 28, 2021

Sleep is a crucial part of good health. You need to get plenty of sleep so that you have enough energy for your daily activities. But it doesn't just affect your physical well-being. Sleep can change the way your mind works, as well.

You may find that long-term sleep problems harm your mental health. If you’re dealing with depression or anxiety, lack of sleep might make them worse. Some people notice that they start having problems with sleep at times when their mental health is already under strain.

Treating mental health and sleep issues can improve your quality of life. Learn more about how sleep affects mental health.

Does Lack of Sleep Cause Mental Illness?

Severe sleep deprivation can cause many mental health issues. People who stay awake for days at a time show symptoms of psychosis, including hallucinations and disordered thinking. But these situations aren’t typical.

Some people have a combination of mental health and sleep concerns. Many people with mental illnesses such as depression report problems falling asleep or staying asleep. But doctors can't always tell if a lack of sleep led to mental illness or the other way around.

Some experts think that long-term (or chronic) sleep problems raise the risk for certain mental illnesses. At the same time, some mental conditions can cause problems with sleep. Treating sleep problems may ease mental health symptoms. Or you may start sleeping better when you address your mental health.

Sleep and Common Mental Health Concerns

Some common mental health conditions affect sleep or become more severe when people can't sleep well.

Depression. Most people with clinical depression have some problem with sleep. Insomnia, which is an inability to sleep, is a common complaint. Sleep apnea, in which you stop breathing for short periods, is also common in people with depression. Lack of sleep can make symptoms of depression worse. People with both depression and insomnia are more likely to feel suicidal.

Anxiety. More than half of people who have anxiety also have insomnia. Children with anxiety have more trouble falling asleep. They also don't sleep as deeply as their peers. People with anxiety from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) may have serious problems with interrupted sleep. That pattern can make it harder to recover from PTSD or worsen symptoms.‌

Bipolar disorder. People with bipolar conditions might be unable to sleep during manic periods. But during depressive periods, they may sleep too much. Lack of sleep during stable times can cause people to relapse into a manic phase.

Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). In children, the symptoms of sleep deprivation can look like ADHD. Overly tired kids can have the same impulsivity, inattention, and restlessness that children with ADHD have. The symptoms can resolve if the child's sleep improves. Also, children with a diagnosis of ADHD may have sleep problems such as restless legs, problems winding down to fall asleep, and shorter sleep times.

Tips for Getting Better Sleep

‌Getting more sleep or better quality sleep may improve your mental health. Here are some tips to make falling asleep and staying asleep easier.

  • Turn off screens. The blue light from phones, computers, or TVs can make it harder to fall asleep.‌
  • Avoid caffeine. Coffee, tea, and sodas can affect sleep.
  • Be more active. Getting more physical activity can make you more tired at bedtime.
  • Don't take naps. Instead of napping, power through until bedtime, so you're tired then.
  • Create a calming space. Keep your bedroom clean, uncluttered, dark, and quiet to promote relaxation and sleep.
  • Mediation. Meditation or conscious relaxation can help relax your mind and body to promote sleep.
  • Melatonin. Melatonin is a dietary supplement that increases sleepiness.
  • Keep regular hours. Try to go to bed and wake up around the same time every day.
  • Watch what you eat. Heavy meals or too much alcohol at night can interfere with sleep.
  • Keep a sleep journal. Note your daily activities, meals, mealtimes, and how you slept so you can spot patterns.

If these don't work, talk to your doctor about whether therapy might help. Sometimes, chronic insomnia makes people so anxious about falling asleep that it makes the problem worse. Cognitive-behavioral therapy can help improve this type of anxiety. Taking medications for mental illness might resolve your sleep problems.

You can also ask your doctor about whether sleep aids would help. There are over-the-counter and prescription medicines that help people sleep.

Show Sources

‌SOURCES:

American Psychological Association: "Getting a good night's sleep: How psychologists help with insomnia."

Frontiers in Psychiatry: "Severe Sleep Deprivation Causes Hallucinations and a Gradual Progression Toward Psychosis With Increasing Time Awake."

Harvard Health Publishing Harvard Medical School: "Sleep and mental health."

National Alliance for Mental Illness: "Sleep Disorders."

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