It is estimated that 25% of Americans suffer from insomnia each year. Insomnia is a common disorder that impacts our sleep and mental health.
Having insomnia can have a negative impact on your daily life, making it much more difficult to function and focus. Insomnia also increases the risk of anxiety, depression and stress, reduces productivity at work and can cause irritability and moodiness.
Insomnia and mental health issues including depression and anxiety are directly linked. However, it’s not as clear cut as one issue causing the other, but the presence of one often indicates the existence of the other.
If you’re struggling with sleepless nights and stress, keep reading to discover how the two might be connected and what you can do to counteract nighttime anxiety.
What is Insomnia?
Insomnia is a common sleep disorder marked by the inability to fall or stay asleep. Not only does insomnia make it difficult for people to go to bed at night, it can also cause people to wake up too early in the morning or wake up in the middle of the night unable to fall back to sleep.
Common symptoms of Insomnia Include:
- Consistent waking after sleeping
- Unable to get to sleep at night
- Waking too early in the morning
- Feeling tired throughout the day
- Brain fog
A short-lived, non-recurring bout of insomnia is called acute insomnia. Acute insomnia usually has an easy-to-pinpoint underlying cause and can last for a few days to a couple of weeks. Acute cases of insomnia are often brought on by stressful situations or environmental discomfort
Acute insomnia may be caused by:
- A traumatic event like a death in the family or divorce
- Stressful situation at work
- Certain medications
- Environmental discomfort (a heatwave for example).
- Sensitivity to temperatures, noise or light
Chronic insomnia lasts at least three months and occurs at least three nights a week. Reasons for chronic insomnia might include:
- Not having a regular sleep routine
- Medical conditions
- Poor eating habits
- Substance abuse: tobacco, alcohol or other drugs
- Overall stress
- Mental disorders
- Sleep apnea
The Relationship Between Insomnia and Mental Health
The link between mental health issues and insomnia is bidirectional. That means, untreated insomnia can potentially lead to anxiety problems and those anxiety problems can also increase a person’s risk or severity of their insomnia. One might trigger or make the other worse, but neither one is technically the root of the other.
One of the most common problems that insomnia sufferers face is that when they go to the doctor for their insomnia they neglect to report the anxiety-related (or other mental-health) symptoms that may be related to their insomnia. This failure to report symptoms often leads to an incomplete assessment and treatment of the real problems.
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, the way in which insomnia affects a person can even be useful for diagnosing their mental illness.
For example, insomnia that is related to depression is often characterized by waking up too early in the morning and lack of energy and throughout the day. Post-traumatic stress disorder is often linked to sleep disturbances involving nightmares.
Having a mental disorder doesn’t mean a person will always have a sleep disorder, just as having a sleep disorder doesn’t mean a person will always have a mental disorder. However, someone who suffers from a sleep disorder or a mental health issue has an increased risk of having or developing both.
Anxiety or depression are common feelings most everyone will experience from time to time. If the feelings are persistent or severe, it’s wise to consult with a doctor.
Mental Health Disorders That are Commonly Linked to Insomnia
- Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
- Bipolar Disorder
- Generalized Anxiety Disorder
- Panic Disorders
- Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder
How Sleep Benefits the Brain
Sleep plays a significant role in maintaining our mental and emotional well-being. There’s good evidence that sleep helps us make better decisions, helps us process our emotions and aids in memory consolidation and learning. It’s easy to see how insomnia can either increase or possibly lead to mental health problems.
Here’s a list of the many ways that sleep helps our brains stay healthy.
As stated prior, treating a sleep disorder may alleviate or reduce the severity of symptoms related to mental health issues, and treating mental health issues may reduce the likelihood of developing a sleep disorder or the severity of an existing sleep disorder.
Sleep Helps with Memory and Learning
Not getting enough sleep makes concentrating harder. This in turn makes remembering something like an algebra lesson or what was said during an important business meeting more difficult. However, this isn’t the only way that sleep keeps our memories sharp. Research shows that sleep may help consolidate our experiences and the things we learn during the day into long-term memories
During sleep, the brain also has a chance to sort out which information will be most useful in the future. This might be why someone was able to remember questions for a test that they studied for but not what they ate for lunch last Tuesday.
There’s also evidence that sleep decreases the size of our synapses3. A synapse is an area where information gets passed between cells. Decreasing the size of synapses helps strengthen important connections while making space for new memories and information. It’s our brains way of “trimming away” the unimportant connections.
Sleep Helps Clear Toxins from the Brain
The glymphatic system removes waste from the brain using cerebral spinal fluid. Some of the most notable and dangerous toxins are beta amyloid and tau proteins which have been linked to Alzheimer’s disease. The glymphatic system is at peak efficiency during slow-wave sleep. As we grow older, slow-wave sleep becomes harder to maintain which many researchers believe may contribute to the onset of Alzheimer’s disease.
Sleep Helps You Make Better Decisions
“Let me sleep on it.” The basis of this old rule of thumb is that you should get a good night’s rest before making an important decision, and that’s often good advice. While this wisdom is ancient, scientific studies have shown that people who are sleep deprived tend to make worse decisions.
One interesting study5 introduced test subjects to a gambling game. Those that had adequate sleep were able to understand the rules and make smarter choices compared to those who didn’t get enough sleep.
Another study6 had subjects purchase food and non-food items from a computer-generated auction. The sleep-deprived test subjects were more likely to choose unhealthy snacks and pay more than those snacks were worth. This may be a study worth remembering when stumbling into your local diner or coffee and pastry shop after a night of poor sleep!
Sleep Helps You Process and Regulate Emotions
People sometimes get cranky when they are tired or they might burst into tears while watching sappy commercials late at night. That’s because when people don’t get sleep, their amygdalae go into hyperdrive.
The amygdala helps process emotions and is especially well-known for its connection to fear, anxiety and its ability to alert us of danger.
Furthermore, sleep, specifically REM sleep, is now believed to help people process their emotions. It is theorized that a lack of REM sleep may be why there is a high correlation between mental health issues and insomnia8.
Sleep may also help us process disturbing or traumatic events. One study9 found that people who slept within 24 hours of witnessing a traumatic occurrence had fewer distressing emotional thoughts compared to those who didn’t sleep.
Tips to Reduce Nighttime Anxiety
Anxiety and insomnia often go hand in hand, but there’s no need to panic. If you’re having trouble sleeping, it might be caused, in part, by environmental or behavioral issues. Making a few small changes to your routine may help relieve anxiety and decrease your chances of developing chronic insomnia.
Here are some tips to implement that may help you get better sleep:
- Create good habits and routine, including going to bed at the same time every night and waking up at the same time each morning. This includes weekends!
- Avoid caffeine late in the day. That includes caffeine you might find in chocolate and other candy.
- Create a relaxing bedroom environment. If you’re bothered by a bright street light that’s outside your window or the sound of frogs croaking in a nearby pond, consider using blackout curtains or a white noise generator to help improve your sleep.
- Keep your bedroom cool and well-ventilated to initiate sleep and help you stay asleep.
- Don’t use your bed for anything but sleep. Some people eat in bed or work on their laptops there, but you may begin to associate the bed with things other than sleep which might make snoozing difficult.
- Avoid computer screens before bed. The light generated by these screens can interfere with your ability to sleep by interfering with your ability to begin producing melatonin, a hormone that helps you go to sleep
- Make sure to get plenty of sunshine in the mornings. It will help your body regulate its circadian rhythms and it signals your brain to stop producing melatonin.
- Exercise regularly.
- Alcohol, in excess and tobacco are unhealthy and both can disrupt sleep. Stop drinking a few hours before bedtime and quit smoking if possible.
- Try a warm bath an hour or two before bed.
- Try using a relaxation technique. Meditation, journaling and positive visualization are all great ways of getting in a relaxed headspace.
Need Help With Your Sleep?
If you’re looking to improve your sleep and mental health and struggle with insomnia we can help. The benefits of sleep for your brain and mental well-being are undeniable. There are many causes of insomnia, and short-term can become acute if steps are taken to treat your insomnia. You can learn more about why treating insomnia matters here.
The highly trained staff at the Sleep Centers of Middle Tennessee has successfully treated all 90 recognized sleep disorders, including insomnia, which is the most common sleep disorder. We’re prepared to help you get a better night’s sleep. Make an appointment Sleep Centers of Middle Tennessee today and we’ll help you get back on the path to a healthy, good night of sleep.
- Rasch, Björn et al. (2013). About Sleep’s Role in Memory. Physiological Reviews, 93(2) 681-766: Retrieved on October 31, 2019 from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3768102/
- Wilhelm, I. et al. (2011). Sleep selectively enhances memory expected to be of future relevance. Journal of Neuroscience, 31(5) 1563-9: Retrieved on October 31, 2019 from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21289163
- de Vivo, L. et al. (2017). Ultrastructural evidence for synaptic scaling across the wake/sleep cycle. Science, 355 (6324), p. 507-510. Retrieved on October 31 from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/28154076
- Hablitz, Lauren et. al (2019) Increased glymphatic influx is correlated with high EEG delta power and low heart rate in mice under anesthesia. Science Advances,5(2): eaav5447: Retrieved on October 31, 2019 from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6392807/
- Pace-Schott, Edward et. al (2012) Sleep-dependent modulation of affectively guided decision-making. Journal of Sleep Research, 21(1) 30-9: Retrieved on October 31, 2019 from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21535281
- Rihm, Julia et. al (2019) Sleep Deprivation Selectively Upregulates an Amygdala–Hypothalamic Circuit Involved in Food Reward. The Journal of Neuroscience, 39(5) 888-899: Retrieved on October 31, 2019 from https://www.jneurosci.org/content/39/5/888
- Simon, Eti Ben et. al (2015) Losing Neutrality: The Neural Basis of Impaired Emotional Control without Sleep. The Journal of Neuroscience, 35 (38) 13194-13205: Retrieved on October 31, 2019 from https://www.jneurosci.org/content/35/38/13194.abstract
- Tempesta D et. al (2018) Sleep and emotional processing. Sleep Medicine Reviews, 40:183-195: Retrieved on October 31, 2019 from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/29395984
- Kleim, Birgit et. at (2016) Effects of Sleep after Experimental Trauma on Intrusive Emotional Memories, Sleep, 39(12) 2125-32: Retrieved on October 31, 2019 from https://academic.oup.com/sleep/article/39/12/2125/2706348