Public awareness of mental health struggles has made leaps and bounds in the last few years, but have you ever considered how your mental health can affect your sleep and vice versa?
Twenty-five percent of Americans suffer from insomnia each year— in fact, it’s one of the most common sleep problems worldwide. Insomnia not only impacts your sleep, but it can also affect your mental health by increasing your risk of anxiety, depression, and mental distress.
When it comes to the sleep vs. mental health question, it’s not as clear-cut as one disorder causing the other. But, the presence of one often does indicate the existence of the other.
March 13th through 19th marks Sleep Awareness Week in 2022, and this year we wanted to take a look at the connection between insomnia and your mental health. So if you’ve struggled with insomnia and stress, keep reading to learn how the two are connected— and what you can do to take care of your mental health.
What is Insomnia?
Insomnia is a sleep disorder that makes it difficult to fall asleep and get adequate restorative sleep through the night. Some common symptoms of insomnia include:
- Difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep
- Waking up at least once during the night
- Waking up too early in the morning
- Excessive daytime sleepiness— or not feeling rested even after a full night’s sleep
- Brain fog
There’s more than one kind of insomnia. Short-lived, non-recurring bouts of insomnia are called acute insomnia, or transient insomnia. Acute insomnia usually has a specific underlying cause and can last anywhere from a few days to a couple of weeks. Some causes of acute insomnia may include:
- Traumatic events— such as a death in the family or divorce
- Stressful situations at work
- Certain medications, including stimulants, beta-blockers, some antidepressants, and even some sleep medications
- Being sick
- Environmental discomfort— such as a heatwave
- Sensitivity to temperatures, noise, or light
Unlike acute insomnia, chronic insomnia recurs for an extended period of time. This type of insomnia can last for at least three months or in some cases longer, and often occurs at least three nights a week. Some causes for chronic insomnia may include:
- An irregular sleep routine or poor sleep habits
- Medical conditions— such as chronic pain, heart disease, and asthma
- Poor eating habits
- Substance abuse— abuse of tobacco, alcohol, or other drugs
- Overall stress
- Mental disorders— such as depression, anxiety, or bipolar disorder
- Sleep apnea
So now that you know that mental health disorders can cause insomnia, let’s take a closer look at the relationship between the two.
Related: Is Insomnia Genetic?
The Relationship Between Insomnia and Mental Health
Approximately half of all insomnia cases are linked to anxiety or stress. However, the link between mental health issues and insomnia is bidirectional. That means that untreated insomnia can potentially lead to mental health problems, and those anxiety problems can also increase a person’s risk of insomnia or its severity. One might trigger or make the other worse, but neither one is technically the root of the other.
When many insomnia sufferers go to the doctor for their insomnia, they actually neglect to report the mental health-related symptoms that may be affecting their sleep disorder. This failure to report symptoms often leads to an incomplete assessment and ineffective treatment of the real problems.
Oftentimes, general practitioners or family doctors don’t ask about underlying mental health conditions when discussing insomnia. It is important to be aware of the bidirectionality of these conditions and make your healthcare provider aware.
Many mental health disorders have been linked to insomnia. Some of them include:
- Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
- Bipolar Disorder
- Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)
- Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD)
- Panic Disorders
- Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD)
Can Insomnia Help Diagnose Mental Illness?
Yes, in a way. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, the way that insomnia affects you can be useful for helping with the diagnosis of any potential mental illnesses.
For example, insomnia related to depression is often characterized by waking up too early in the morning, and a lack of energy during the day. Post-traumatic stress disorder is often linked to sleep disturbances involving nightmares.
Having a mental disorder does not always mean that a person will have a sleep disorder— just like having a sleep disorder doesn’t automatically mean a person has a mental disorder. However, someone who suffers from sleep disorders or mental health problems has an increased risk of having or developing both.
It’s normal to feel anxious or sad sometimes— everyone has experienced these feelings at some point in their lives. However, if the feelings are persistent or severe, it’s wise to consult your doctor or a mental health specialist.
Related: How Sleep Disorders Affect You
How a Good Night’s Sleep Benefits Your Brain
Good sleep quality plays a significant role in maintaining your mental and emotional well-being. Here are five ways that sleep helps our brains stay healthy.
1. Sleep Helps Boost Your Mental Health
As we said earlier, treating a sleep disorder may alleviate or reduce the severity of mental health disorders. Similarly, treating mental health issues may reduce the likelihood of developing a sleep disorder, or reduce the severity of an existing sleep disorder.
2. Sleep Helps with Memory and Learning
Not getting enough sleep makes concentrating or remembering information more difficult. However, this isn’t the only way that sleep keeps our memories sharp. Sleep also helps consolidate your experiences and the things you learned during the day, and turns them into long-term memories.
According to a study from the Journal of Neuroscience, the brain may also prioritize saving what information may be most useful to you in the future. This might be why, for example, you were able to memorize the lyrics to We Don’t Talk About Bruno, but not what time you were meeting your friend for lunch.
A good night’s sleep may also decrease the size of synapses in your brain. Synapses are areas where information gets passed between brain cells. Reducing the size of synapses can help strengthen important connections in your brain while also making space for new memories and information. Basically, it’s your brain’s way of “trimming away” the unimportant connections so that new information is easier to remember.
3. Sleep Helps Remove Toxins from Your Brain
Your body’s glymphatic system is very important to your brain health. This system helps deliver nutrients to your brain, and uses cerebral spinal fluid to remove brain waste. Some of this brain waste— beta-amyloid and tau proteins— can be especially dangerous. That’s because the build-up of these toxins has been linked to Alzheimer’s Disease.
The glymphatic system is at peak efficiency during slow-wave sleep, one of your deep sleep phases. As you grow older, slow-wave sleep becomes harder to maintain. Many researchers believe that this may contribute to the onset of Alzheimer’s Disease as well.
4. Sleep Helps You Make Better Decisions
“Let me sleep on it.”
We’ve all heard this before. Basically, the idea is that you should get a good night’s sleep before making an important decision. That’s good advice— especially because people who are sleep-deprived tend to make riskier or more impulsive decisions.
Another study from the Journal of Neuroscience instructed participants to purchase food and non-food items from a computer-generated auction. Interestingly, sleep-deprived participants were more likely to choose unhealthy snacks and pay more than those snacks were worth than those who got adequate sleep did. Remember this when you go out for breakfast or coffee after a night of poor sleep!
5. Sleep Helps You Regulate and Process Your Emotions
We all know how cranky we can be after a night of poor sleep. Some people may even be prone to mood swings after a night of insufficient sleep. That’s because when you don’t get enough sleep, your amygdala goes into hyperdrive and impairs your ability to regulate your emotions! The amygdala is the part of your brain that helps process your emotions. It’s especially well-known for its connection to fear, anxiety, and its ability to alert us of danger.
Experts believe that getting enough REM sleep specifically is vital to regulating your emotions. In fact, one theory is that a lack of REM sleep may be the reason there’s a high correlation between mental health issues and insomnia.
One study from the journal Sleep also found that good quality sleep may also you process disturbing or traumatic events. The study observed 65 healthy women who were exposed to an experimental laboratory trauma. They were then divided into two groups— one that slept afterward, and one that stayed awake. The study found that the participants who slept within 24 hours of witnessing trauma had fewer distressing emotional thoughts compared to those who didn’t sleep.
10 Tips for Reducing Nighttime Anxiety
Anxiety and insomnia often go hand in hand, but don’t worry. If you’re having trouble sleeping, making a few small changes to your nighttime routine may help relieve anxiety and decrease your chances of developing chronic insomnia.
Here are Sleep Centers of Middle Tennessee’s tips to help you get better sleep:
- Practice good sleep hygiene. This means creating good sleep habits and following a consistent bedtime routine, even on the weekends.
- Avoid caffeine at least 6 hours before your regular bedtime. This includes caffeinated beverages like soda, coffee, and tea. Be careful of other foods that may contain caffeine or other stimulants as well, like chocolate or other candy.
- Create a relaxing bedroom environment. If you’re bothered by a bright street light outside your window or the sound of frogs croaking in a nearby pond, you don’t have to put up them for a good night’s sleep. To block out intrusive light, we recommend using blackout curtains, or an eye mask like those from Manta Sleep. For masking unwanted noise, we recommend using a white noise generator or a sound machine.
- Keep your bedroom at a comfortable temperature. Remember, the ideal temperature for sleep is between 60 and 67 degrees Fahrenheit. This can vary from person to person, so you can experiment to see what works best for you.
- Only use your bed for sleep and sex. Some people work or even eat in bed, but this can make getting proper sleep more difficult. This is because it can you associate your bed with everything but a good night’s sleep— so make sure your bed is only used for sleep and sex.
- Avoid screens before bed. The blue light generated by your phone, computer, and TV interferes with your ability to sleep by reducing how much melatonin your brain produces before bed. If your brain doesn’t produce enough, then you may be up later than you want to be.
- Get plenty of morning sunshine. It helps your body regulate its circadian rhythm and signals your brain to stop producing melatonin to help you wake up. Ideally, get sunlight on your face and eyes for about 10-20 minutes first thing in the morning. A quick walk in the morning will do wonders for your day and quickly reduce melatonin production.
- Exercise regularly, but not too close to bedtime. Exercising too close to bedtime can actually make it harder for you to fall asleep.
- Consuming tobacco or alcohol in excess can disrupt sleep. Stop drinking a few hours before bedtime, and if possible— for myriad health reasons— quit smoking altogether.
- Practice relaxation techniques. Techniques like meditation, journaling, a warm bath, or positive visualization are all great ways of getting into a relaxed headspace.
Need Help With Your Sleep?
Sleep’s benefits for your brain and mental well-being are undeniable. That said, getting a good night’s sleep should never be a challenge.
If you struggle with insomnia and want to improve your sleep and mental health, we can help. The highly trained staff at the Sleep Centers of Middle Tennessee has successfully treated all 90 recognized sleep disorders, including insomnia. We’re prepared to help you get a better night’s sleep. Contact the Sleep Centers of Middle Tennessee today and we’ll help you get back on the path to a healthy, restful night’s sleep.
“Sleep Disorders.” NAMI – National Alliance on Mental Health, www.nami.org/about-mental-illness/common-with-mental-illness/sleep-disorders.
Wilhelm, Ines, et al. “Sleep Selectively Enhances Memory Expected to Be of Future Relevance.” The Journal of Neuroscience: the Official Journal of the Society for Neuroscience, Society for Neuroscience, 2 Feb. 2011, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21289163.
Rihm, Julia S, et al. “Sleep Deprivation Selectively Upregulates an Amygdala-Hypothalamic Circuit Involved in Food Reward.” Journal of Neuroscience, Society for Neuroscience, 30 Jan. 2019, www.jneurosci.org/content/39/5/888.
Kleim, Birgit, et al. “Effects of Sleep after Experimental Trauma on Intrusive Emotional Memories.” Academic.oup.com, Sleep, 1 Dec. 2016, www.academic.oup.com/sleep/article/39/12/2125/2706348.