mental health sleepWhen you don’t sleep well for a night or two, you may be a little grumpy…a little irritable.

But that’s to be expected. After all, you didn’t get a lot of sleep the night before.

But what happens to your mental health when you keep missing sleep? Just how important is sleep for your mental health?

More Common Than You Think

For years, researchers thought of insomnia as nothing more than a symptom of a bigger problem – that you’re stressed, sick, or its medication related.

More and more though, researchers are recognizing that chronic sleep deprivation can actually cause health issues, including mental health issues.

And by “sleep deprivation” I don’t only mean being awake all night, or going for several nights in a row without sleeping at all. Your mental health can start being affected if you get less than six hours of sleep a night on a regular basis. By that standard, sleep deprivation isn’t just something other people experience or something you see in movies.

In fact, there are more than 85 individually recognized sleep disorders that affect more than 70 million Americans. And the most common sleep disorder, insomnia, is identified by:

  • difficulty getting to sleep, staying asleep, or both
  • often taking 30 minutes or more to get to sleep
  • getting 6 or fewer hours per sleep
  • difficulty 3 or more nights a week, for a month or more

A Chicken or Egg Situation

Clinical depression and anxiety can both cause disrupted sleep. But current studies are showing that sleep deprivation can actually lead to those disorders, as well.

Sleep affects your mental health so much that doctors often have a hard time knowing which condition came first – the insomnia or the depression.

People with insomnia are five times more likely to develop depression and twenty times more likely to develop a panic disorder.

Signs to Look Out For

So how do you know if sleep is affecting your mental health? The truth is that if you are getting six or fewer hours of sleep per night, sleep is affecting your mental health. But there are also some specific symptoms you can look for.

Confusion. When you’re sleepy, you’re not as sharp. Your ability to concentrate and pay attention is diminished. It’s easier to get confused, lose track of a conversation, or even make a decision because you just aren’t aware of what’s happening.

Memory loss. Your memories are solidified during sleep, as your body restores itself and imprints memories. In order to keep and hold onto these memories, your brain has to go through certain sleep cycles. When those cycles are disrupted, your brain doesn’t deal with your memories as effectively. This can add to the confusion issue we just touched on. It’s harder to remember where you put things because your short term memory isn’t as good. It’s a vicious circle.

Irritability. Just because you’re short-tempered and on edge doesn’t necessarily mean you’re an angry person, or that the people around you are incompetent. You could be sleep deprived. One of the most subtle ways sleep affects your mental health is by keeping you on edge. It’s easy to blame other people for being annoying – when really, it might just be that you aren’t sleeping well.

Depression. While some studies indicate that 65-95% of adults struggling with depression have sleep issues, there are also studies showing that sleep issues can contribute to depression. The University of Michigan performed a two-part study, interviewing the same groups of people twice in three years. The people who reported insomnia in the first interview were four times as likely to develop major depression by the second interview, when compared to the regular sleepers. Sleep affects your mental health once you have depression, as well. People who suffer from both depression and insomnia are less likely to respond to treatment for the depression – and are more likely to relapse – than people who are depressed without insomnia.

Anxiety. As with depression, sleep disorders can be a precursor to anxiety. They can also make dealing with anxiety more difficult. A small study showed that sleep deprived individual’s brains became more likely to create a “heightened emotional response” and agitation after being shown disturbing images and situations.

The general statistics are eye-opening. Compared to people who sleep well, those who don’t are:

  • four times more likely to have relationship problems
  • three times more likely to experience low mood
  • three times more likely to experience lack of daytime concentration
  • two times more likely to deal with low energy levels

So, how important is sleep? The fact that it affects your mental health is no longer a question - it affects everything.

If the mental health issues come first, or are brought about by the sleep deprivation, one thing is clear – getting a good night’s sleep is key to good mental health.