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Key Takeaways:

  • Sleep and mental health are interlinked in that sleep deprivation can exacerbate mental issues and vice versa.
  • Common mental health problems related to sleep issues are anxiety, ADHD, depression, SAD, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and other mood disturbances.
  • You can improve sleeping habits and mental problems by establishing a consistent sleep schedule, limiting screen time, avoiding caffeinated or sugary drinks before bed, and finding ways to relax.

Insomnia affects approximately 33% of the global population, with studies determining an inherent link between sleep and mental health [*]. Sleep problems can exacerbate symptoms related to mental health conditions like anxiety and depression, so understanding this relationship is essential.

If you’ve found yourself asking, “How does sleep affect mental health?” you’ve come to the right place. This guide explores the connection between sleep and mental health and offers tips on improving both.

The Relationship Between Sleep and Mental Health

Sleep has a significant impact on physical health and can have just as consequential an effect on mental health. While lack of sleep is often a direct consequence of many psychiatric conditions, it also plays a causal role in the development and maintenance of several mental health disorders [*].

Sleep and Mental Health Problems

The relationship between sleep and psychiatric disorders is circular. Below is a look at how sleep problems can lead to changes in mental health and vice versa.

Anxiety

Anxiety disorders affect 25% of American teenagers [*]. On the other hand, 9.4% of American children experience anxiety [*]. When people with anxiety experience worry and fear, they enter a state of hyperarousal, a central contributor to insomnia. When individuals become sleep-deprived, the brain has a harder time regulating emotions.

Anxiety also triggers the fight-or-flight response, flooding the body with cortisol, a hormone that increases stress and disrupts sleep [*].

Research also indicates that sleep can activate anxiety in people who are at risk of it [*].

Related: Anxiety in Children, Understanding Anxiety in Teens

ADHD

ADHD is often diagnosed in children, but the neurodevelopmental disorder can persist into adulthood and affect sleep. People with ADHD usually struggle to fall and stay asleep or experience frequent daytime sleepiness.

Sleep difficulties associated with ADHD are most common in teenagers, though they can affect adults too. The relationship between ADHD and sleep is bidirectional, with sleep problems aggravating symptoms like reduced attention span or behavioral issues [*].

Depression

Roughly 75% of depressed people demonstrate symptoms of insomnia, with many struggling with daytime sleepiness and hypersomnia [*]. Other complications affecting both children and teenagers with depression might include:

  • Waking up earlier than usual and having trouble falling back asleep
  • Reduced total sleep time
  • Extreme shifts in sleep-wake cycles
  • Restless sleep and nightmares

Seasonal Affective Disorder

Seasonal affective disorder is a subtype of depression occurring at different times throughout the year. It occurs most commonly during reduced daytime hours and is commonly linked to a disruption to the circadian rhythm [*].

During the winter months, individuals who don’t get enough sunlight also experience reduced melatonin production, a hormone that signals sleepiness. This disrupted melatonin production can cause excessive sleepiness, difficulties falling asleep, or daytime sleepiness.

Schizophrenia

Individuals with insomnia are likely to experience sleep disturbances and circadian rhythm disorders. In addition, medications used to treat schizophrenia may interrupt sleep or make it more difficult to fall and stay asleep [*].

Schizophrenia medications like antipsychotics can block dopamine receptors, which control sleep regulation mechanisms [*].

Bipolar Disorder

People with bipolar disorder often experience the same sleep issues as those with depression. However, symptoms may vary depending on the type of episode they experience. For example, individuals in manic states may feel restless and unable to fall asleep, while individuals in depressive states may oversleep [*]. Sleeping problems can also induce or exacerbate episodes.

Mood Disturbances

Sleep and mood disturbances are intricately linked. Poor sleep can worsen mood, and mood problems can disrupt sleep, creating a vicious cycle. Sleep deprivation can cause emotional dysregulation or amplify negative emotions, increasing symptoms of depression.

Individuals may also experience impaired brain function, negatively impacting their concentration, memory, and decision-making.

How to Improve Sleeping Habits for Better Mental Health

Every individual’s situation is different, but taking simple steps to improve sleep hygiene can significantly impact mental health. Here are a few good sleep habits and treatment options to consider.

Establish a consistent sleep schedule

Establishing a consistent sleep takes time and effort, but the results are rewarding. The first thing you’ll want to determine is a realistic sleep and wake time. Aim for at least seven to eight hours of sleep per night.

Remember that your sleep schedule won’t change overnight. Be patient and allow for 15 to 30-minute discrepancies.

Create a relaxing bedtime routine

Most people struggle to fall asleep because they are restless or mentally preoccupied. The easiest way to fall asleep is to develop a relaxing bedtime routine.

Before bed, avoid stimulating activities and replace them with something relaxing, like taking a warm, 20-minute bath, reading a chapter of a book, meditating, or deep breathing.

Limit screen time before bed

Device screens can negatively impact sleep because of blue-light emissions. Smartphones, tablets, and laptops emit blue light that suppresses melatonin production, making falling and staying asleep difficult [*].

Consuming engaging content before bed will also keep your brain active and engaged, making individuals alert and focused. Of course, in today’s digital-forward age, avoiding using a device before bed can be challenging. Here are some device-related habits you can adopt as part of your bedtime routine:

  • Disable alerts and notifications or place your phone on “do not disturb” mode for a select period
  • Use your device for guided meditation instead of scrolling on social media
  • Play a soothing podcast on your device and enable a sleep timer

Engage in regular physical activity during the day

Regular physical activity can improve sleep quality by promoting slow-wave sleep, the deepest and most restorative part of the sleep cycle. It helps achieve this by allowing individuals to fall asleep faster and stay asleep longer, reducing nighttime awakenings [*].

Managing stress with exercise is also another method of improving sleep quality.

Finally, exercise regulates body temperature, cooling you down after a workout and signaling sleepiness [*]. In addition, it enhances melatonin production, improving the overall quality of sleep.

Avoid consuming caffeine or stimulants close to bedtime

Coffee, tea, and soda contain caffeine, a stimulant that interferes with sleep [*]. Sugary drinks like fruit juices, sweetened beverages, and sports drinks can also cause blood sugar spikes, resulting in crashes that disrupt sleep quality.

Another type of drink you should avoid is alcohol. While it may make you drowsy initially, it often causes fragmented sleep [*].

Instead, consider drinks like warm milk. Warm milk contains tryptophan, an amino acid that converts to melatonin [*].

Chamomile tea is another popular before-bed drink thanks to its calming properties. Tea lovers might also consider herbal teas like lavender and valerian root, which have mild sedative effects [*].

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) examines and helps reformulate negative thinking patterns. Individuals with mental health conditions who undergo CBT can improve their mental state and feel less stressed, leading to enhanced sleep quality.

Research shows that CBT reduces symptoms of depression, anxiety, paranoia, PTSD, and nightmares, improving overall well-being and preventing insomnia [*].

When to Seek Professional Help

While many sleep and mental health problems are manageable, there may come a point when you must seek professional help. Consider consulting a healthcare professional if you experience the following:

  • Persistent sleep issues lasting more than a few weeks
  • Sleep problems impacting daily responsibilities and executive functioning
  • Severe sleep disturbances like frequent nightmares, sleep paralysis, and sleepwalking
  • Sleep problems pointing to underlying medical conditions
  • Feeling overwhelmed or hopeless
  • Significant changes in mood and behavior
  • Inability to cope even after trying self-help strategies

Check out our tips to improve sleep handout if you’re looking for a quick reference guide with helpful strategies and positive sleep habits.

The Bottom Line

The psychological effects of sleep deprivation are well-studied, making treatment accessible and manageable. Addressing sleep problems as early and thoroughly as possible is essential to protect your overall health.

Explore our CBT worksheets to help you or your child address negative thinking patterns that might be affecting sleep.

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