Updated: Dec 1, 2021
Do you ever wish you could literally sleep like a baby again? I know that I do. Sleep has become such a precious commodity to me that I even become jealous of those who can take sleeping well for granted. When I hear my husband snoring next to me, I find myself becoming furious. Of course, that’s not rational and it’s not his fault. However, it’s incredibly frustrating when he puts his head on the pillow and is out like a light while I lie there wide awake for hours. Evidence points to a strong bidirectional correlation. If someone has mental health disorders, it makes it harder to sleep well, and insomnia can be a contributing factor to the initiation and worsening of mental health problems. In fact, chronic sleep problems affect 50% to 80% of patients in a typical psychiatric practice, compared with 10% to 18% of adults in the general U.S. population. So, what causes the correlation between sleep and mental wellness and can getting a good night’s sleep improve your overall mental health?
Why sleep affects your mental state
As we sleep our brain goes through various stages, each of which helps to keep our brain healthy. Brain activity ramps up or down, enabling better thinking, learning, and memory1 as well as affecting our emotional and mental health2. Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep is a sleep stage where the brain processes emotions and evaluates thoughts and memories. A lack of REM sleep can make it especially hard to consolidate the positive emotional content that makes us happier.
Examples of disorders connected to sleeplessness
Every year, anxiety affects an estimated 20% of adults and 25% of teenagers within the U.S. Anxiety also has a strong correlation with sleep problems. When a person is worried or fearful, it causes the mind to race, which is a central contributor to insomnia15. Of course, when you can’t sleep, that can also contribute to your worry which makes it even harder to sleep, creating a vicious cycle.
Depression and sleeplessness are also connected. People that are feeling sad or irritable can find it hard to sleep. Just as depression can lead to sleeplessness, the reverse is also true – again, creating a vicious cycle. After anxiety, depression is the second-most-common mental health issue in the United States. Around 75% of depressed people show symptoms of insomnia8, and many people with depression also suffer from excessive daytime sleepiness and hypersomnia, which is sleeping too much.
Research has also found an extremely high correlation between PTSD and insomnia. Many PTSD sufferers have nightmares which make them have anxiety about falling asleep as they don’t want to have to replay negative experiences. PTSD especially affects veterans, and at least 90% with combat-related PTSD have insomnia symptoms. In addition, former soldiers are ingrained with a heightened sense of alert which can make it almost impossible to fall into a completely deep and restful sleep. We have all heard the expression of “sleeping with one eye open” which describes the sleep patterns of many Veterans who have been in combat situations.
Although there is undoubtably a correlation between mental health and insomnia, there is continued research being conducted to fully understand how the two are connected. Unfortunately, there is no magic bullet for the problem. That said, there are things that you can do to increase your chances of falling and staying asleep. They include:
Regular exercise can help people become healthier, enabling you to feel and sleep better.
Remove distractions from the bedroom such as T.V.’s, phones and reduce exposure to light from electronics.
Get into a routine at night, such as enjoying a bath, reading a book, or practicing meditation or breathing exercises.
Stick to a schedule and try to go to bed and wake up at roughly the same time every day. Also, try to avoid napping or take cat naps (shorter naps).
Avoid substances such as alcohol, tobacco, and caffeine, and do not eat large meals at night.
Spend more time outdoors as more exposure to daylight can positively affect your circadian rhythm (biological clock).
Sleep restriction is a form of therapy that increases “sleep efficiency” by decreasing the amount of time that a person spends in bed awake.
Cognitive behavioral therapy can help you control or eliminate negative thoughts and worries that keep you awake.
Try scented oils that are known to help with relaxation, such as lavender, bergamot, and valerian.
Consider supplements such as Melatonin, but check with your doctor first. Also, if you think that certain medications are interrupting your sleep, speak with your doctor as well about possible substitutions.
Medication may be prescribed by your doctor if other treatments have failed