We all know that sleep is crucial for our health, but did you know that it can have a huge impact on your mental health?
Getting the right amount of quality sleep each night helps your mind and body to function. There are four stages of sleep and we cycle through these stages repeatedly throughout the night. Each stage serves an important purpose in helping our mind and body rest, recuperate, and develop.
The National Sleep Foundation states that each stage of sleep is crucial and that: “brain activity during sleep has profound effects on emotional and mental health”.
Yet a 3rd of adults in America report not sleeping the recommended amount. This can lead to issues with both physical and mental health. Let’s take a closer look at the effects on mental health.
How Sleep Affects Mental Health
1. Energy Levels
How well you sleep is a major factor in how much energy you have during the day. When you don’t sleep well, you feel tired, drained, and low in energy.
This lack of energy can make it hard to keep up with daily tasks. You might find you’re falling behind at work, school, or with tasks at home.
You might find you don’t have the energy to do the things you enjoy. Instead, you’re just doing your best to function through the day. This can have a negative impact on your mental health.
When you sleep well, your energy levels are replenished and you’re ready to face the day. You’re more productive and are able to function to the best of your ability. This tends to make you feel accomplished and positive.
2. Regulating Emotions
We’ve all been there: when we don’t sleep we often become snappy, short-tempered, and grumpy. It’s common to feel emotions, especially negative emotions, more intensely and more often.
During sleep, our brains process our emotions along with thoughts and memories. Research shows that when this process is regularly interrupted it causes problems with the: “consolidation of positive emotional content”. This means our brains struggle to process our positive emotions.
Understandably, this can lead to negative emotions and problems with emotional regulation when we’re awake. We’re more likely to see things from a negative perspective rather than a positive one!
When you get the sleep you need, your brain can process and regulate your emotions more effectively. This means you’ll feel happier, calmer, and more positive.
3. Dealing With Stress
We all experience some level of stress, but how well you sleep is one of the factors that determines how well you can cope with stress. Without restful sleep, you’re more likely to get angry, frustrated, and struggle to cope with any stress you face.
On the bright side, when you sleep well you’re far more capable of dealing with stressful situations that come your way.
4. Coping With Daily Life
Lack of sleep can result in issues with cognitive function, this can include problems with concentration, focus, memory, and the ability to learn new things. It can also mean your thoughts and reactions are much slower.
It’s easy to see how these issues can lead to problems functioning and coping with daily life. Many people find they’re making mistakes at work, school, or at home. You may find you are unable to cope with your usual responsibilities and aren't performing at your best.
When you get the sleep you need, you’re likely to perform better, cope with daily tasks, and be the best version of yourself.
5. Relationships With Others
It might be surprising to hear that how you sleep can impact your relationships with others. If you’re tired and are struggling with having enough energy for daily tasks, you might begin to isolate yourself. You may not have the energy to socialize and may start turning down invitations and staying at home.
If you’re snappy and short-tempered as we mentioned earlier, this can have an impact on those around you. It can often lead to disagreements and problems within relationships.
Thankfully, good sleep allows you to be ‘your true self’ and maintain healthy, positive relationships with those you love.
Self-care refers to any action you take to look after your physical or mental health, for example eating well, exercising, keeping up with personal hygiene, doing things you enjoy, and so on. Self-care is crucial to your health and happiness.
When you don’t sleep well and are lacking in energy, you’re less likely to keep up with positive self-care habits. Lack of self-care can have a negative impact on your mental health.
Sleeping well makes you more likely to keep up with self-care which in turn takes care of your mental health. I like to think of self-care as setting yourself up for success.
7. Mental Illness
So, if lack of sleep can impact your mental health, it makes sense that it can contribute to and worsen mental illness. Lack of sleep can increase the risk of someone developing a mental illness like depression and anxiety.
Evidence shows that lack of sleep increases the chances of a person experiencing: “frequent mental distress”.
It can also make existing mental illnesses worse. I live with bipolar disorder and when I don’t sleep, my symptoms are worse and much harder to manage. On the other hand, when I sleep well I feel much more mentally stable and able to manage my disorder.
The National Sleep Foundation states that sleep significantly impacts our mental health and: “has demonstrated links to depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, and other conditions.”
An Ongoing Cycle
You know that feeling when you can’t sleep: you feel restless, you start to look at the clock and think about how many hours of sleep you’re going to get, and you worry about it.
You become stressed about not being able to sleep, and this tension keeps you awake even longer.
The next day you feel all the effects of lack of sleep. As it gets closer to bedtime, you begin to feel stress and worry about whether you will sleep tonight (and what will happen if you don’t). Once again, this stress makes it hard for you to sleep.
It’s an ongoing cycle of sleep problems causing stress and stress making you less likely to sleep. This can be frustrating and a hard cycle to break, but the key here is that it is possible to break the cycle. Let’s take a look at how to do this.
How to Sleep Well
So, what can you do to help yourself sleep well? The best starting point is sleep hygiene. Sleep hygiene refers to positive habits you develop which promote better quality sleep.
Sleep hygiene can include:
Having a Regular Sleep Schedule
This includes going to bed and waking up around the same time each day and night, which gets your brain into the positive habit of when it should be resting and when it should be active.
Wind Down Before Bed
Set aside half an hour to an hour before you head to bed to wind down. Turn off electronics and do something you find relaxing, for example reading a book, practicing mindfulness, or listening to calming music.
Make Your Bedroom a Calming Sanctuary
Ensuring your bedroom is a calming space can be really helpful. You can check out our guide for more information.
During the day it’s important to be active and get some exercise, as this helps to tire you out ready for bed at night.
Getting out in the daylight can also be really useful, as light is a big influence on your circadian rhythm (like your inner body clock that controls when you’re asleep and awake).
Keeping the lights low in the bedroom can also be useful to indicate to your brain that it’s time to sleep.
Watch What You Eat and Drink
Try to avoid caffeine later in the day, as it can make it tough to sleep. You should balance your alcohol drinking and smoking as these substances can affect your quality of sleep.
Eat a light snack if needed near bedtime so you don’t go to bed hungry, but don’t eat a heavy meal right before bed as this can make you feel bloated and uncomfortable.
There are lots of different ways you can practice sleep hygiene.
If you’re changing your habits, it’s best to try changing them gradually, one at a time so it’s more achievable and doesn’t feel overwhelming.
Ultimately, it’s about finding a routine that is realistic for your lifestyle and that works for you in the long term.
Sleeping Well Improves Your Mental Health
Now you know just how much sleeping well can improve your mental health, why not try making sleep a priority?
You might find it makes a big difference in how you feel during the day.
Although habits can be difficult to change, it’s well worth putting the effort into positive change if it helps you to be your best self and enjoy life to the fullest.
Eric Suni, (2020), “Mental Health and Sleep”. National Sleep Foundation.
Amanda Blackwelder, MPH, Mikhail Hoskins, MPH, Larissa Huber, PhD, (2021), “Effect of Inadequate Sleep on Frequent Mental Distress”. Prev Chronic Dis 2021;18:200573.
Eric Suni, (2021), “Sleep Hygiene”. National Sleep Foundation.