When we think about the way sleep deprivation affects us, we often immediately think about how tired we become when we don’t get enough sleep. Poor sleep habits can contribute to fatigue and other health problems such as heart disease, weight gain, or even cancer. But far beyond simply giving us physical energy and health, sleep is a critical part of restoring our brains to give us what we need to be mentally healthy. Some might say that sleeping is just as critical to our health as eating, drinking or even breathing.
Americans, in particular, are often sleep-deprived. Whether it’s related to general insomnia, working too much, keeping a busy schedule, or even just spending too much time in front of the television or computer, not getting enough sleep each night is becoming a common reality for more than 50 million people each year in the United States. And it’s affecting not only physical health but mental health as well.
While sleep deprivation is certainly not the only cause of mental illness and other mental health issues, it can certainly be linked through as a contributing factor. Lack of sleep affects our ability to think clearly, can cause feelings similar to intoxication, and often exacerbate problems such as anxiety and depression a well as ADHD in children and adults.
Effects of Sleep Deprivation on Mental Illness
Sleep deprivation related to mental illness can be complicated as it is difficult to discern whether insomnia is a symptom of mental health problems or a contributing factor to mental health problems. In this way, sleep deprivation can often be a vicious cycle.
Poor sleep can lead to anxiety and worrying. Anxiety and worrying can lead to poor sleep as you lie awake at night worrying about how you will function the next day if you can’t get enough sleep. Poor sleep can lead to:
- Negative thoughts and feelings
- Loneliness and isolation
- Triggers for psychotic episodes such a bipolar disorder, mania, paranoia, psychosis, or other worsening of symptoms related to mental illness
Mental Effects of Sleep Deprivation
While you are sleeping, your brain is in the process of repairing your body and your mind. During the deepest stages of sleep, the cells and tissues in the body are growing and restoring themselves, working in a sort of daily maintenance mode. And anyone who has missed a night of good sleep has experiences the shift in mood that can occur.
Even just one night of poor quality sleep results in grumpiness, irritability, anxiety, stress, worry, depression, and an overall feeling of low-functioning brain. When poor sleep goes on for long periods of time, symptoms of mental illness can begin to appear. Sleep problems are common among people who suffer from anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, attention deficit disorder, paranoid schizophrenia, and more.
Poor quality sleep can result in an exacerbation of symptoms for people with mental illness. A person who has depression may find themselves even sadder and more down-in-the-dumps when they don’t get proper sleep. In fact, one study has shown that having insomnia is believed to double the risk that a person will develop depression. Another example may be that a person who suffers from schizophrenia I likely to have more severe hallucinations if their ability to sleep is disturbed.
One other link between mental health and sleep deprivation that some people may experience is the fact that certain medications used for the treatment of mental health issues may be the cause of insomnia in some people. Insomnia has the ability to slow down healthy emotional and mental processing, making it more difficult for counseling or cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) options to work as effectively.
How to Battle Sleep Deprivation and Mental Illness
Getting a good night of sleep is critical for maintaining a healthy life mentally, physically and emotionally. Some studies have shown a significant decrease in depression and other mental concerns when sleep is improved. Improving your sleep hygiene through healthy lifestyle changes is one of the most effective, natural ways to improve mental health while improving physical health as well. This should, of course, be managed under the care of a qualified doctor and medications should always be taken as prescribed.
Simple, natural strategies to improve sleep include:
- Exercise. People who have a sedentary lifestyle are more likely to struggle with sleep deprivation problems. Getting moving every day is a way to promote better rest. A brisk walk, workout class, or some other way to effectively burn off energy and calories will help you sleep better. Just be sure to get the exercise in early in the day so you aren’t too energized when it’s time to go to sleep.
- Substances. Avoid caffeine and alcohol in the evenings as both of these substances can disrupt your sleep. While many people think that a glass of wine in the evening helps them to sleep, it really does the opposite and does not allow you to rest well. Nicotine is another problematic substance that can negatively affect sleep so try to limit smoking in the evening if you can.
- Sleep Hygiene. Preparing your brain and body for sleep ahead of time can be helpful. Begin your sleep routine about an hour before you need to go to sleep. Lower the lights and play calming music. Set aside your work and do something relaxing like taking a bubble bath, reading a boring book, or solving a crossword puzzle.
- Monitor Use of Electronics. Those screens may not feel like your enemy, but they may be keeping you up at night. The blue lights in your television, computer, smartphone or tablet will cause your brain to get hyperactive. Turn off all electronics a couple of hours before you plan to go to bed. Keep your phone away from the nightstand and use a traditional alarm clock instead.
- Meditation and Yoga. Many people who struggle to sleep due to anxiety or worry may find that a routine of meditation or yoga can be helpful. This type of mental exercise may improve relaxation and focus of the mind, allowing you to get your brain and body in a better position to get the sleep you need at night.
If you suspect that you or someone you care about has mental health problems, it is nothing to be ashamed of and the care of a doctor or therapist should be sought out. Getting the proper amount and kind of sleep is just one piece of the puzzle when it comes to taking care of your brain and your body to keep yourself healthy!