So you “woke up on the wrong side of the bed,” a phrase commonly banded about, but for good reason, since there is a great deal of truth behind it. Sleep is linked closely to our mental and emotional health and there have been various studies linking lack of sleep to depression, anxiety, ADHD and numerous other conditions.

The relationship between sleep and mental health is a complex one, in part because of their bidirectional relationship i.e. development of depression for example can contribute to sleep disturbances and vice versa. However there is strong reason to believe that a better nights sleep can have a beneficial impact on mental health and can be a component of treating many psychiatric disorders.

The role of sleep in consolidating positive emotional content

When we go to sleep our brain follows a series of patterns which make up the sleep cycle. The body cycles through four different stages, which all impact our brain waves, muscle relaxation, recovery, and breathing. Research has also uncovered that brain activity during sleep has profound effects on emotional and mental health.

Better Nights Sleep

The final stage of the sleep cycle is called REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep. This plays a significant role in evaluating the brain’s processing of emotional information and it is estimated that most adults need about two hours of REM sleep each night.

Research suggests that a lack of sleep is especially harmful to the consolidation of positive emotional content. Hardly surprising then, that a lack of sleep can lead to negative mood and in some cases is tied to mental health disorders ranging in severity, including the risk of suicidal behaviours.

Negative Feedback Loop Between Sleep & Mental Health

Specific mental health conditions and their connection with poor sleep

Anxiety: Can cause racing or repetitive thoughts, and worries that keep you awake and contribute to a state of hyperarousal, with sufferers unable to calm their racing mind. You may even experience panic attacks while you’re trying to sleep. Ironically, many sufferers begin to experience anxiety over falling asleep itself (Sleep Anxiety) and so the deterioration of sleep continues.

Depression and seasonal affective disorder (SAD): Whilst depression can make you sleep more, including staying in bed for longer or sleeping more often, around 75% of those affected by depression experience symptoms of insomnia.  Historically, sleeping problems were seen as a consequence of depression, but growing evidence suggests that poor sleep may induce or exacerbate depression as sufferers get caught in the negative feedback loop (above).

ADHD: Sufferers of ADHD often complain about difficulties in falling asleep, frequent waking in the night and the added challenge of daytime sleepiness.  Again there is evidence of a bidirectional relationship with sleep which may exacerbate symptoms such as difficulty focusing and behavioural problems.

Better Nights Sleep

Treating sleep disorders as a result of mental health conditions

Because of the bidirectional relationship between sleep and mental health, improving sleep can be challenging and it often means that both mental health and sleep issues need to be addressed simultaneously.

Since mental health conditions are extremely complex, there is no one size fits all treatment and it is important to seek help from a trained medical professional. A common treatment in the form of therapy is Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), and can be available to those struggling with their mental health.

This form of therapy examines patterns of thinking and working to consider negative thoughts in new positive light.  For many patients, help from a trained counsellor can meaningfully improve their sleep and mental health.

However, there are some basic steps that can be taken at home in order to improve sleep and these form part of your overall sleep hygiene.  Research has shown that strong sleep hygiene involves having both a bedroom environment and daily/evening routines that promote consistent, uninterrupted sleep.  Some easy to implement examples include:

  • Having a fixed time to go to bed and wake up, regardless of whether it is a weekday or weekend
  • Diming your lights a couple of hours before you go to bed
  • Keeping your bedroom cool, tidy and dark
  • Unplugging from electronics and all types of blue light at least an hour before your bedtime

These are just a few examples, but there are plenty of other steps you can take which if done correctly and more importantly, consistently, over a period of time, can make a significant improvement to the quality of sleep

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