How poor sleep affects your mental health

Outlining how sleep and mental health are linked and giving tips on how to improve your sleeping habits.

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Sleep and mental health often go hand in hand, and a bad night's sleep could disrupt your mental health.

With work, family and other life commitments, many of us don’t get the recommended 7 or 8 hours of sleep each night. Having another coffee to get us through the day can sometimes become the norm.

It can be easy to dismiss sleep as not being important in maintaining a mentally healthy lifestyle – but are we missing a trick? How important is a good night’s sleep to how we function mentally?

Do you struggle to get to sleep?

Most people who seek help getting to sleep, or staying asleep long enough to feel refreshed, reveal common myths about sleep. The trouble is, these myths end up keeping them awake at night because they lead to false hopes and unrealistic expectations such as:

  • I MUST get 8 hours of sleep every night
  • I should never wake up at night
  • If I'm groggy in the morning, I won't be able to cope
  • When I can't sleep, I should stay in bed and try harder
  • I have to nap to make up for lost sleep

Insomnia is thought to affect around one in every three people. It's not always clear what triggers it, but it's often associated with stress and anxiety, mental health conditions such as depression and schizophrenia, and sometimes physical health conditions such as heart problems and hormonal changes.

Why is sleep important for our mental health?

Sleep has an important restorative function in ‘recharging’ the brain at the end of each day, just like we need to charge a mobile phone battery after prolonged use. Maintaining a regular sleep-wake cycle allows the natural rhythm of the body to be reset every day and therefore optimises brain functioning and can improve mental health.

Ongoing poor sleep can be a huge risk factor for the development of major depressive disorder. The risk of feeling depressed and/or anxious (as well as worsening existing anxiety and depression) increases with the severity of insomnia, and so it's important to recognise and tackle sleep problems as soon as they're identified.

Dr Niall Campbell discuss causes of sleep problems

Priory Consultant Psychiatrist, Dr Niall Campbell, says: “Anxiety is the greatest enemy of sleep, even more so than depression.

People ruminating can be a real disturber of sleep. Even if you then fall asleep, you can get intermittent sleep, and often have bad dreams." 

Read more about expert opinions on sleep here. 

The effects of a lack of sleep

Missed sleep can lead to psychological and physical ill health in many ways.

Psychological symptoms and effects include:

  • Low mood
  • Anxiety
  • Irritability
  • Erratic behaviour
  • Poor cognitive functioning and performance (for example, forgetfulness, making mistakes and slower thinking than normal)
  • Psychotic episodes

Physical symptoms and effects include:

  • Physical symptoms of anxiety
  • Tiredness
  • Elevation in blood pressure and stress hormones
  • Negative effects on cardiovascular health (increased risk of strokes and heart attacks)
  • Immune damage, which can lead to many physical problems

Eight steps to improve your sleeping habits

  1. Establish a regular sleep-wake cycle - try to go to sleep and wake up at regular times
  2. Try to ensure that you have a comfortable bed and bedroom - noise, light and temperature should be tailored to your preferences if possible
  3. Limit the use of stimulants - such as caffeine, nicotine and alcohol near bed time
  4. Avoid drinking excessive liquids - especially in the evening, to minimise the chances of you needing to wake up to empty your bladder
  5. Avoid going to bed until you're drowsy and actually ready to sleep - most people who suffer from insomnia spend more time in bed lying awake rather than actually asleep
  6. Regular daily exercise - but not too late in the evening as this could be stimulating
  7. Avoid electronic devices late at night - such as computers, mobiles, tablets and so on; the bright light can be overly stimulating and keep you awake
  8. Try meditating - many people find meditation a great tool for better wellbeing. Bring yourself into the 'here and now', removing yourself from anxiety and preparing yourself for restful sleep. Follow our expert therapist in a progressive muscle relaxation meditation for sleep below

Progressive muscle relaxation meditation for sleep

This progressive muscle relaxation meditation, written and narrated by Priory Therapist, Adele Burdon-Bailey, is designed to help you unwind - ready for deep, restorative sleep.

Page clinically reviewed by Dr Natasha Bijlani (FRCPsych, MBBS), Consultant Psychiatrist based at Priory Hospital Roehampton London

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