Insomnia on your mind

What are the connections between sleep and mental health?

The way disrupted sleep can affect mental health issues — and vice versa — is so well-known and age-old that this trope is ingrained in our classics of literature. From Don Quixote to Shakespeare’s Macbeth, cautionary tales about how poor sleep can damage mental health – as well as the reverse being true — are many and varied.
Fast forward to the present day, and one thing I keep getting asked about is how sleep and mental health interact with one another. In these challenging times, constantly adapting as best we can to rapidly changing realities, it’s no surprise that such subjects are front-of-mind.
Lockdowns that prevent us from socialising normally — while also causing economic chaos – can put a huge strain on our mental health. This is why it’s more important than ever before to take care of our mental health — as well as our sleep.
With all our amazing technology and how much we’ve learned about the mind, the body and our world, why are so many of us still making the same mistakes as Lady Macbeth and crazy old Quixote? Read on to learn about the connection between sleep and mental health, unravel the individual strands that tie the two together, and discover how you can improve both of them for yourself.

How sleep influences your mental health?


  • The likelihood of developing an anxiety disorder is increased if you have problems with sleep, especially if these become chronic after being left untreated for an extended period. A study published in 2014 that involved 1420 children aged 9-16 suggested that poor sleep can predict generalised anxiety disorder as well as oppositional defiant disorder (ODD). ODD is associated with disobedient and unruly behaviour towards authority figures.


  • Feelings of agitation and distress are more difficult to deal with when you are tired as a result of poor sleep, and research suggests that acute sleep deprivation can worsen symptoms of anxiety as well as depression among otherwise healthy adults.

  • Disruption to REM (rapid eye movement) sleep — the part of your sleep cycle associated with vivid dreams — can have a detrimental effect on the way you process emotions and form long-term memories. Studies suggest that your ability to retain happy memories is one of the processes that suffers most as a result of insufficient sleep, leading to emotional imbalances severe enough to influence suicidal tendencies.


REM sleep is a time when areas of the brain responsible for creating memories and learning are active, meaning that this is one-way depression can impede study and productivity. Experiments involving animals have suggested that being deprived of REM sleep can have a detrimental effect on life span.


  • Psychological resilience is generally described as the quality that empowers people to stay calm in a stressful or chaotic situation. Resilience is also about how quickly and easily a person can return to a balanced and peaceful state of mind after becoming distressed or traumatised by severe adversity.


Without getting too scientific about it, sleep deprivation can prevent your brain from ‘recharging’. Additionally, sleep is the time when the toxins that build up naturally during the day are flushed out; when these accumulate to problematic levels, resilience is one of the qualities that suffers.


  • The ability to empathise with others — as indicated by how accurately a person can identify emotions based on facial expressions — is impaired when a person is sleep- deprived. The authors of a randomised controlled trial published in the scientific journal Sleep concluded that this perceptual distortion was particularly pronounced in relation to “threat-relevant (angry) and reward-relevant (happy)” categories of emotion.


  • The quality of your work suffers when you are sleep-deprived. According to a report by Deloitte Access Economics, it was estimated that sleep disorders cost the Australian economy a whopping $36.4 billion. So it’s no surprise that ensuring staff is getting the sleep they need is a pressing concern for HR managers and employers alike.


The reasons for this pattern include the fact that lack of sleep causes your compassion levels and collaborative abilities to deteriorate. And that’s before factoring in how much your productivity plummets as a result of how your cognitive powers and social smarts are impaired by a lack of restful slumber.


How your mental health affects your sleep?

  • Anxiety is a subject many of us are all too familiar with, and it’s such a big area that I’ve devoted an entire post specifically to covering this aspect of psychological wellness. Just to give you the short overview here: as I’ve mentioned, poor sleep can make you more susceptible to developing an anxiety disorder.


But it’s a two-way street: conversely, anxiety can be the starting point for this vicious cycle. Insomnia, heightened sleep reactivity (severe disruptions to sleep in response to stress) and frightening nightmares are believed to be associated with chronic anxiety.


  • Hyperarousal — commonly associated with anxiety — is a situation when your body rapidly switches into an acutely alert state. It is regularly implicated in difficulties with sleep among people who experience anxiety. When you are in a state of hyperarousal, the so- called sympathetic branch of your autonomic nervous system is active. This is the part responsible for the ‘fight or fight’ response — it’s a bit like the accelerator pedal, while the parasympathetic branch, which is associated with resting and digestion, is more like the brakes.


  • Depression can have a powerful effect on your ability to sleep soundly. Researchers in the field of neuroscience agree that most people suffering from depression experience problems with their sleep. This can take the form of being unable to fall asleep and stay asleep, or it can manifest as hypersomnia — meaning that you have trouble getting up in the morning, and the times you spend asleep vary instead of being regular and consistent.


Recently, studies have suggested that depression can cause signs of insomnia, and conversely, it is estimated that at least 15% of people suffering from depression experience hypersomnia (excessive sleepiness/sleeping during the day). Depending on details such as the age of the people being studied, this estimate rises as high as 40% of adults who suffer from hypersomnia associated with depression.


  • ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) is associated with problematic, disordered sleep in up to 80% of adults with the condition. Some experts estimate that the prevalence may be as low as 43%, this still makes insomnia the most common health problem linked to ADHD. Although the reasons why ADHD affects sleep in so many cases is not completely understood, it is believed that the stimulant medication often prescribed as treatment may make it difficult for people to fall asleep. Also, symptoms of the condition — such as intense feelings of restlessness — may have a detrimental effect on sleep.


What can be done:

Sleep and mental health have a two-way effect on one another, so the best approach is to improve both.

✔ Use breathing exercises and mindfulness practices to reduce any anxiety you might be experiencing.

✔ Combat depression by keeping a gratitude journal, exercising regularly, and eating healthy food.

✔ Prioritise sleep and make a conscious decision to see rest as an essential path to working more efficiently, being a nicer person, and enjoying a more harmonious life.


Don’t delay, take action today!

Even if everyone else in your workplace is frazzled and underslept, focus on getting the blissful slumber you need and learning to reduce any anxiety or hypervigilance you may be experiencing. You have the power to be a shining star of positivity and tolerance in your workplace and your community.

Who knows? Maybe others will follow your example and get the rest they need.