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Sleep deprivation and mental health: Losing sleep, or losing your mind?

Do you tend to work erratic shifts that leave you awake at all hours of the night?

Maybe you’re preparing for an upcoming test that requires a lot of late-night studying, or you have a demanding job that keeps you constantly alert, listening for email notifications.

There are plenty of reasons why you could be losing sleep in today’s fast-paced world. 

While it’s easy to dismiss your need for sleep and tell yourself you’ll just catch up with your circadian rhythm later, the truth is that any sleep deprivation can have a huge impact on your wellbeing. 

Sleep deprivation — which means not getting enough sleep to wake up feeling rested each day, can cause side effects ranging from lack of concentration to an increased risk of heart disease. 

Not only that, but your lost sleep will also make it harder for you to manage on an emotional and psychological level too. 

Here’s how sleep deprivation can really make it feel as though you’re losing your mind.

Sleep Deprivation And Mental Health

What is the Everyman sleep cycle? The basics

There’s plenty of evidence to indicate that sleep deprivation has a negative impact on emotional performance and mental health. 

One study conducted in 2007 found that a night of restful sleep “resets” brain reactivity so you can prepare for emotional challenges in the day ahead. 

Scientists tell us that sleep helps to recharge the brain every day. Just like we need to charge our phone and laptop batteries after we’ve been using them for a while, you need to re-juice your brain too. 

Maintaining a properly-structured sleep and waking cycle allows you to reset the natural rhythm of your body each day and optimise your brain performance. 

On the other hand, ongoing poor sleep can be a massive risk factor for the development of significant physical and mental health disorders. 

The chances of you ending each day feeling depressed or anxious are a lot higher when you have sleep problems to worry about too. 

The overlap between sleep deprivation and mental health actually goes a lot deeper than you might think. In the US, an estimated 70 million people experience some form of sleep deprivation, along with chronic sleep disorders. 

However, it seems as though people are generally more likely to suffer from sleep disorders if they already have a mental illness. 

For instance:

Research indicates that people who are depressed often suffer from obstructive sleep apnea too. Additionally, patients who are depressed often experience insomnia as a side effect, making it difficult to unpair the two. 

Anxiety disorders
In more than 50% of researched cases, it has been found that patients suffering from general anxiety disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, or PTSD were also experiencing some kind of sleep disorder. Sleep disruptions in patients suffering from PTSD can also make it harder to get through therapy. 

Bipolar disorder
Research into sleep deprivation and mental health suggests that during a bipolar manic episode, up to 99% of patients needed less sleep. On the other hand, in bipolar depression, up to 78% of patients slept excessively. 

Sleep Deprivation And Mental Health

Sleep deprivation effects on mental health

The question “how does sleep deprivation affect mental health?” is a complicated one, because doctors aren’t always sure what comes first — mental health issues, or sleep disorders. 

While we can see that there’s a definite overlap between sleep disorders and psychiatric problems, it’s not always easy to know how to separate the two issues. One problem is usually related to the other. 

If it is your sleep disorder that’s harming your mental and emotional health, then you might notice some of the following symptoms: 

Higher emotional reactivity

You’ve probably noticed that you can get a little emotional at times when you’re struggling with a lack of sleep. Maybe you’re not as patient as you usually are with your kids, or you’re constantly getting into fights with your partner.

You might also find that your emotional responses are more impulsive and intense than normal. 

Even a single night of sleep deprivation will set you up to react more strongly to any situation. What’s more, because being at the mercy of your emotions is an exhausting experience, there’s a good chance that you’ll end up even more tired out by the end of an emotional day.

If you’re living with chronic sleep debt, your emotional reactivity will continue getting worse by the day. 

Amygdala dysfunction

Part of what makes your emotional reactivity so significant when you’re sleep-deprived, is dysfunction in the amygdala portion of your brain. This part of your brain is responsible for controlling your immediate emotional reactions. 

When you’re short on sleep, your amygdala starts working harder than ever, leading you to react intensely to various situations.  

It’s not just your negative emotions that get a heightened response when sleep deprivation effects on mental health disrupt your amygdala. There’s a good chance that you’ll feel positive emotions more significantly too. 

That’s why some experts are beginning to look into sleep deprivation as an option for treating depression

While your amygdala will be fired up by a lack of sleep, the communication between that part of your brain and other aspects of the mind will be problematic. You might not be able to regulate your emotions properly or put the brakes on impulsive behaviour. 

You have a more negative outlook

Now that you know how closely connected sleep deprivation and mental health really are, it’s easy to see how sleep deprivation can contribute to a pretty negative outlook. Sleeping poorly makes you focus on more negative repetitive thinking. 

In other words, you get stuck imagining the worst possible outcomes to problems that you’re dealing with. It’s no wonder that people with sleep disorders can be more likely to develop depression and anxiety. 

Studies tell us that sleep deprived people are less able to control their mind’s fixation on negative thoughts, and have more repetitive negative thoughts overall

Once you get into a pattern of thinking negatively, trying to break out of that cycle can be pretty difficult. 

Sleep Deprivation And Mental Health

Sleep deprivation makes mental health problems more likely

When lack of sleep leaves you feeling so terrible, it’s easy to see how scientists have started to suggest that losing sleep could make your chances of things like anxiety, depression, and other disorders more likely. 

Another reason sleep deprivation and mental health problems can often go hand-in-hand, is that losing sleep often causes you to worry more about the future. Your sleep deprivation issues can exacerbate your fearful and negative responses. 

Scientists from the University of California Berkeley learned that sleep deprivation increases something called anticipatory anxiety. 

The less you sleep, the more you worry about what’s to come. The researchers from the California study mentioned above looked at the brain scans of 18 healthy adults. 

According to the scientists, when the young adults were sleep deprived, they were more likely to show signs of worry about potentially disturbing content when they were told that they were going to see it. 

It’s not just heightened emotions and increased worry about the future that boosts sleep deprivation effects on mental health either. According to some studies, a lack of sleep can also make you feel less connected to your partner. 

Sleep deprivation not only sinks a healthy sex life, it harms other forms of intimacy between partners too. 

Once again, the scientists at UC Berkeley looked into the impact of sleep deprivation and mental health on relationships and found that lack of sleep damages gratitude for our romantic partners. 

It only took one person in the relationship to be missing out on sleep for both partners to feel different about each other.  

Sleep Deprivation And Mental Health

Overcoming sleep deprivation and mental health issues

Staying awake for too long can truly be a horrible experience

Remember, a well-rested brain helps with everything from processing information, to consolidating your memories, and handling your emotions. 

If you’re struggling with a lack of sleep that’s affecting your mental health, or a mental health condition that’s making it impossible to sleep — talk to a doctor. 

Most medical professionals will be able to guide you through some strategies, such as lifestyle changes, updates to your sleep hygiene routine  and even trying cognitive behavioural therapy. 

The most common treatments for sleep deprivation and mental health disorders include:

Adding more exercise to your routine
Exercise improves both your mental health, and your ability to get a good night’s sleep. Adding a bit of regular exercise to your day will help you to produce more feel-good chemicals, eliminate stress, and relax at night. 

Improving your sleep hygiene
As mentioned above, updating your sleep hygiene is the key to overcoming sleep problems, which can improve your mental health too. Try updating your bedroom, getting rid of anything that might stop you from sleeping well. Remember to stick to a regular routine too. 

Relaxation and meditation
Relaxation and meditation techniques will help you to process your thoughts, eliminating anxiety and stress, and thus helping you to sleep more soundly too. 

Professional help
A sleep study can help a doctor to get to the bottom of what’s causing your sleep issues. Once you know what the root of your problems are, you can try treatments like therapy, maybe in the form of CBT. 

How sleep deprivation decays the mind and body

If your sleep deprivation persists for a long time, the results can be both physical and mental discomfort. Some people will start off with problems like irritation and lost energy. 

Others will find that they struggle with drastic changes in their mood and behaviour, as well as cognitive functioning and memory. 

If left unchecked, sleep deprivation effects on mental health can sometimes be very serious, leading to things like suicidal tendencies and paranoia. Although those side-effects really only happen in very severe cases, it’s important to be aware of just how problematic a lack of sleep can be. 

Don’t allow your life to be ruined by sleep deprivation and mental health problems. See your doctor and find out how to tackle your issues today. Don’t forget to check out the articles here at Siestio for more tips too! 

Siestio. Sleep Matters.

Medical disclaimer
You must not rely on the information provided on our website as an alternative to medical advice from your doctor or other healthcare professionals. For more information read our full disclaimer here.

Medical Expert

Siestio is an evidence-based resource dedicated to sleep and wellbeing. Whether you’re affected directly or indirectly by sleep issues, we’re here to help. Because we believe sleep matters.

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