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July 17, 2020 • read

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How sleep affects mental health

You’ve probably felt that uneasiness before. You’re lying awake at night, watching the minutes and hours tick by. The harder you try to fall asleep, the more futile it is. That’s the conundrum of sleep problems. And, it’s something many Canadians grapple with on a nightly basis.

Sleep and mental health are intimately connected. Adults should get 7-9 hours of sleep per night, but studies show that 33% of Canadians over 35 fall short. Sleep problems are a stressful experience, and the irony is that stress makes it hard to get a good night’s rest. This vicious cycle obscures the underlying issues that are causing poor sleep habits in the first place. 

Effects of sleep deprivation

50% of Canadian adults have trouble falling asleep or staying asleep. Over time, sleep disturbances lead to a state of sleep deprivation. While much of the brain is a mystery, we do know that sleep deprivation’s effects on the brain can worsen sleep disorders. Psychological effects of sleep deprivation usually reveal themselves after a month of insufficient rest.

There are over 70 kinds of sleep disorders. You probably know of insomnia, which is a condition where you have a hard time falling or staying asleep. The effects of insomnia can easily impact your quality of life. If this happens to you, you’re not alone. One study found that 3.3 million Canadians struggle with insomnia. 

Obstructive sleep apnea causes breathing troubles and frequent waking. 5.4 million Canadian adults have sleep apnea, or are at high risk of developing it.

Sleep deprivation causes emotional disturbances like feeling irritable, anxious, or grouchy. People who are sleep deprived often have trouble focusing during the day, struggle with remembering things, and feel tired at inconvenient times. 

Sleep deprivation and mental health are so closely tied that psychiatrists and psychologists consider insomnia an early warning sign of mental illness. For people living with bipolar disorder, sleep deprivation can trigger manic episodes.

On top of mental challenges, the effects of sleep deprivation manifest in your body as well. Poor sleep causes low libido, weight gain, and can weaken your immune system. This makes you more susceptible to catching diseases like the cold or flu.

Reasons for sleep problems

The reasons for sleep disturbances are wide-ranging, from too much screen time, to deep-rooted mental health challenges. 

There are several mental health problems that produce sleep disruption. Sleep deprivation and anxiety are a common pair. People with short-term anxiety, and people with long-term anxiety disorders, often report trouble getting enough sleep. 

The experience of not being able to fall asleep can increase anxious feelings associated with bedtime. It’s understandably stressful to have trouble sleeping, and that stress turns into more fuel for anxious thoughts. For people having difficulty breaking the cycle, cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) can help build new routines and improve feelings around sleep.

ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) makes it hard to sleep for 25%-50% of children who have it. Youngsters may have a tougher time understanding why they feel restless and irritable when they’re tired. Poor sleep and ADHD are so often reported together that, much like with anxiety, it can be hard to tell if sleep problems or ADHD came first.

How does lifestyle impact sleep?

Lifestyle habits contribute to sleep problems, too. Coffee drinkers might have trouble sleeping because caffeine is a stimulant. Tobacco, alcohol and other drugs can prevent you from sleeping at all, or prevent you from sleeping deeply. 

Stimuli like light from cell phones and television screens interrupt our ability to fall asleep and stay asleep. A bedtime routine that involves shutting off screens, mindful wind-down activities like meditation, and noise reduction, can help you naturally drift off to sleep.

The link between sleep and mental health

Scientists are still exploring the exact link between sleep issues and mental health. Some experts study sleep psychology exclusively. Their work involves helping patients manage their sleep disorders, and educating on sleep habits. 

Even though we have more to learn, it’s clear that sleep deprivation impacts a person’s psychological state. Chronic sleep disorders are more prevalent in people who have depression than in mentally healthy people. In Canada, 12.3% of sleep deprived adults report having poor mental health. 

When a person falls asleep, there are four stages they pass through. These are wake, light sleep, deep sleep, and REM (rapid eye movement) sleep. There are links between the duration of a person’s REM sleep and their memory, ability to learn, and emotional wellbeing. Some research correlates depression and insufficient REM sleep.

How to get help

Mental health and proper sleep go hand in hand. Working with a professional can help uncover poor sleep habits, or stressful thoughts causing insomnia. You can contact our psychiatrists or psychologists to get started with better sleep, right from the comfort of your bed. 

Speak to a therapist online.

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