The Role of Sleep in Mental Health

Sleep plays a vital role in allowing the human brain and body to recover from mental and physical exertion. Sleep deprivation has even been linked with developing chronic health issues, and sleep disturbances are often the first sign of poor mental health.

 The close relationship between sleep quality and mental wellbeing occurs, in part, because of sleep’s important role in building psychological resilience—a quality defined as the ability to adapt well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, and other significant sources of stress. Studies indicate that sleep loss inhibits areas of the brain that are essential to developing and maintaining resilience, creating struggles with emotional imbalance, self-regulation, memory and learning, lowered pain thresholds, worsening of overall mood, and more.1

The relationship between sleep and mental health becomes even more obvious when looking at the relationship between sleep disorders and specific mental health conditions. We’re looking at some of those relationships in today’s blog post.

How Does Sleep Affect Mental Health?

  • Sleep and depression – Depression has been closely correlated with sleep issues, with as many as 75% of individuals with depression showing symptoms of insomnia.2 Studies comparing the sleep of normal individuals with those suffering from depression found that the latter experienced impaired sleep with increased wakefulness and reduced sleep efficiency, as well as sleep onset latency. In the past, poor sleep was thought to be a result of depression. However, current evidence suggests that insomnia may play a significant role in inducing or exacerbating depression to begin with. This can cause a negative feedback loop in which poor sleep worsens depression, which in turn worsens sleep. Furthermore, insomnia is a serious risk factor for depression among nondepressed individuals. In fact, sleep disturbances may even predict treatment outcomes, including relapse and recurrence of depression. Thankfully, there is evidence that treating impaired sleep may also improve depression.3
  • Sleep and anxiety disorders — Also strongly associated with sleep issues are anxiety disorders. Worry and fear can lead to a state of hyperarousal, which is thought to be a key contributor of insomnia.Anxiety disorders encompass a broad spectrum, including generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), social anxiety disorder, panic disorder, and specific phobias. A particularly strong link exists between PTSD—an anxiety disorder characterized by a chronically heightened state of arousal after a traumatic event—and sleep disorders. Common sleep disorders for PTSD include insomnia, nightmares and night terrors, and obstructive sleep apnea.5
  • Sleep and bipolar disorder — A mental health condition characterized by episodes of extreme high (mania) and low (depression) moods, bipolar disorder can lead to variable sleep disruptions depending on what stage an individual is in. Manic periods, for example, are often accompanied by less sleep. On the other hand, depressive periods may lead a person to sleep excessively. These wild fluctuations in sleep habits can lead to sleep disruptions that continue between episodes, and there is evidence to suggest that sleep issues may induce or exacerbate manic and depressive episodes.6

Tips for Improving Sleep Habits

The science is clear: there is a strong connection between a healthy sleep routine and good mental health. Fortunately, there are steps that can lead to better sleep and an improved routine. 

Some of these suggestions include:

  • Stick to the same sleep schedule every day, even on weekends
    • Sleep in a cool, dark room
    • Get regular exercise to decrease hyperarousal
    • Avoid stress before bed
    • Avoid caffeine after noon and alcohol a few hours before bedtime
    • Create a wind-down routine
    • Limit exposure to blue light
    • Take a shower or bath to lower your core body temperature

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Works Cited

1.     McCrory, E., De Brito, S., & Viding, E. (2010). Research review: the neurobiology and genetics of maltreatment and adversity. J Child Psychol Psychiatry, 51(10), 1079-95.

2.     Nutt, D., Wilson, S., & Paterson, L. (2008). Sleep disorders as core symptoms of depression. Dialogues Clin Neurosci, 10(3), 329-36.

  • Bishop, T., Simons, K., King, D., & Pigeon, W. (n.d.). Sleep and suicide in older adults: an opportunity for intervention. Clin Ther, 38(11), 2332-2339.

4.     Kalmbach, D., Cuamatzi-Castelan, A., Tonnu, C., Tran, K., Anderson, J., Roth, T., & Drake, C. (n.d.). Hyperarousal and sleep reactivity in insomnia: current insights. Nat Sci Sleep, 10, 193-201.

5.     Gehrman, P. Sleep problems in veterans with PTSD. Retrieved April 2022, from Veterans Affairs:

  • Harvey, A., Kaplan, K., & Soehner, A. (n.d.). Interventions for sleep disturbances in bipolar disorder. Sleep Med Clin, 10(1), 101-5.