Sleep and Mental Wellness: What’s the Connection?

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If you’ve ever pulled an all-nighter, you’re well aware that poor sleep can cause foggy thoughts, low productivity, memory loss, impaired problem solving, and an overall feeling of “bleh.”

But did you know that if you’re not getting enough sleep regularly it can have adverse effects on your weight, your risk for heart disease and stroke, your immune system, and your mental health?

Why Sleep Matters

If you’re in the workforce, you’re likely concerned with a healthy work/life balance, right? Your body wants that same balance. It works for you all day, and it needs that rest time to recharge because when you’re sleeping your body is doing more than lying there producing dreams about tacos.

In a normal, uninterrupted night of sleep your body cycles between two major categories: “quiet sleep” and “REM sleep.”

Quiet sleep has four stages of increasingly deeper slumber. Your body temperature drops, muscles relax, heart rate decreases, and breathing slows. This level of rest allows the body to perform necessary physiological changes that help boost your immune system. Important stuff.

REM (rapid eye movement) sleep is when you have those crazy dreams you tell your co-workers about

the next day. All the things increase – body temperature, blood pressure, heart rate, and breathing. Studies have shown this sleep stage improves learning, memory and emotional health. So yes, all-nighters are actually detrimental to passing that exam.

When you don’t get enough sleep to let your body recharge, sleep deprivation occurs. Essentially, your body goes into a constant state of stress. You release chemicals called cortisol and glucocorticoid that are not nice to your body. In fact, they de-rail a lot of your body’s production processes. Glucose isn’t produced efficiently, your appetite-controlling hormones are disrupted, and insulin resistance is increased (which can lead to weight gain).

Why Sleep Matters to Mental Health

It’s clear that lack of sleep wreaks havoc on the body. So it may come as no surprise that it affects the mind, as well. America is known for having a sleep deprived culture, and with nearly one in five American adults living with a mental illness, it’s important to look at the relationship between mental health and sleep.

The two are, no doubt, connected. Individuals  with mental health problems are more likely to have insomnia or other sleep disorders. However, what happens to the mental disorder when sleep deprivation is added?

New studies suggest that lack of sleep can cause and/or exacerbate the symptoms of mental illness. This varies based on the disorder and each individual case.


Between 65% and 90% of adults living with depression suffer from a sleep disorder, the most common being insomnia. Without proper sleep, those suffering with depression are likely to see affected outcomes. Their insomnia makes them less likely to respond to treatment than those without sleep disorders.

Further, sleep problems are shown to increase the risk of developing depression in the first place. Several studies have shown that many patients reported problems sleeping before they became depressed.

Bipolar disorder

A majority of people with bipolar disorder (69% – 99%) suffer from sleep problems, as well. With this disorder, however, sleep problems vary. Many experience insomnia or report needing less sleep during a manic episode. Studies show that 23% to 78% of bipolar patients sleep excessively (a disorder called hypersomnia), while others experience insomnia or restless sleep.


For adults who struggle with anxiety disorders, 50% also have a sleep disorder. It’s also very common for these individuals to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), panic disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and phobias.

Unfortunately, because of the high stress levels insomnia causes, this can actually worsen symptoms of anxiety disorders or even prevent recovery. For example, if sleep is interrupted in someone living with PTSD, it can cause a retention of negative emotional memories and keep them from experiencing the benefits of different therapies.

What Can Be Done?

If you, or someone you love, is struggling with a sleep disorder, there are several steps you can take to find your sleep.

One of the first things you can do is take control of outside factors. Consider your sleeping structure – the performance tool to finding your best night’s sleep. How old is the mattress you are sleeping on? If you have noticed you wake up with aches and pains, it may be time to go shopping. This is one of the easiest changes you can make that you have complete control over.

Additionally, consider adding comforting elements to the bedroom – white noise machines, softer lighting, relaxing sheets, pajamas, etc.

You may need to take a look at what you’re putting in your body. We know caffeine can keep you up, but alcohol and nicotine are also sleep curbing culprits. Alcohol may help you fall asleep, but when the effects wear off many people wake up. Nicotine, on the other hand, speeds your heart rate and thinking. Not great for sleep.

Regular exercise has a long list of benefits, and one is that it helps people fall asleep faster and spend more time in deep sleep with less midnight interruptions.

Many people swear by relaxation techniques like meditation, guided therapy, deep breathing exercises, and progressive muscle relaxation to calm down as they prepare for a long night of sleep.

If none of these work, consult with a medical professional to consider other options for helping your body find the work/rest balance. It’s important to address these problems for your overall health and happiness.


Lisa Smalls is a freelance writer from North Carolina. She loves writing about all things interior design. When she isn’t writing, you can find her rearranging her furniture or brainstorming which room to paint next.

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