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How sleep and mental health are connected

4 minute read

When it comes to our children, we understand sleep’s role in their development and make sure they keep good sleep routines. But as we get older, we tend to think of sleep as an inconvenience or an added extra.

The role of sleep often gets compared to diet or exercise but, actually, sleep is the foundation of human health and happiness. Why is sleep so important? Well, it has an overarching impact on our wellbeing. Sleep covers such a broad sweep, from regulating metabolism to maintaining your mental health.

Can poor sleep be a warning sign for other conditions?

When somebody comes to see a psychotherapist or specialist with mental health issues, there is usually a sleep problem.

Sleep disturbance and insomnia are big parts of depression and anxiety. You tend to sleep lighter and have more wakeful times in between sleep cycles, so you are not getting the deep sleep and REM sleep that is so mentally restorative. Both of those are connected to memory and cognitive repair. They help “bed in” our information – which is why burning the midnight oil around exam time can be counterproductive for students.

General anxiety disorder is one example of how poor mental health can manifest sleep problems. Falling asleep will become difficult – or the person will find themselves waking up at 4am – because they are worrying and ruminating quite a lot.

On the other hand, you may find somebody with depression is oversleeping. If we look at the neuropsychology, it tells us that when people are depressed, they tend to start excluding things that make them happier. So, they cut down their social activities and minimise their life tasks down to as few things as possible. The brain is like any muscle – if we don’t exercise it, we lose something. With less activity, tiredness sets in. As we only need so much sleep, once we go over that we go into hibernation mode.

Does poor sleep make us susceptible to mental health problems?

There is evidence to show that sleep problems may increase the risk of developing certain mental health conditions. Sleep disruption in particular impacts stress hormones and neurotransmitters, which can impair our thinking and emotional regulation.

But it doesn’t help to “catastrophise” too much about potential consequences. The important thing is to take proactive steps to ensure you get the best rest possible.

Will one bad night’s sleep impact my mental resilience?

Don’t worry, it won’t. We can all have a bad night’s sleep or oversleep every now and again. There are also different life cycles to take into account. If there is an exam coming up, if you’re pregnant, or if there’s a small baby in the house, it’s natural for your sleep to be impacted. It’s only when sleep deprivation becomes chronic that we are left open to emotional vulnerability and negative thinking, and professional support is required.

What would you tell someone dealing with poor sleep?

An attitude of ‘I can and must make myself sleep’ isn’t helpful. We can’t fully control the process of sleep, so let that mindset go. Mindfulness meditation can help with calming your thoughts when you go to sleep. Meditation apps can help you develop daily mindfulness practices.

If out-of-the-norm sleep issues are persistent for more than two weeks, then you should start to look at the underlying causes. There could be a number of physical and psychological reasons why you’re not getting enough sleep.

If you’re concerned, contact your GP for a full assessment. They will look at what your worries are, if there are family issues going on, or any other things that are feeding into it.

From there, a trained professional can then recommend an integrated approach to help deal with the sleep issues. Treating the sleep disorder may also alleviate the symptoms of the mental health problem, so a vicious cycle can come full circle in a positive way.

Do dreams tell us anything about our wellbeing?

If somebody persistently presents with nightmares, there is some emotional disturbance going on.

I often compare it to a computer screen. If we don’t close down our different windows, they prevent us from switching off completely. Leaving “windows of worry” open when we sleep does contribute to dreams being a little bit strange or unusual. Usually with dreams, there’s a grain of truth in them. But it’s an exaggerated version.

It’s just our minds making sense of different experiences we’ve had. Plus, any dream is an indication that we’re having good quality REM sleep, so there is that!

Sleeping with peace of mind

So, to best protect our mental health, we really need to be conscious of our sleep. This includes taking practical steps to encourage good quality sleep and also recognising how sleep problems can be closely linked to underlying wellbeing issues.

Sleep and your mental health is a two-way relationship that requires a holistic approach if issues present. With the right support, you can work towards getting both back on track.

This content is for information purposes only and is not intended or implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Always seek advice from your GP or an appropriate medical professional if you have concerns about your health, or before commencing a new healthcare regime. If you believe that you are experiencing a medical emergency call 999 / 112 or seek emergency assistance immediately.

Meet our Vhi Verified Expert

Martina Gibbons

Martina Gibbons Vhi Health Coach

Registered Mental Health Nurse, Cognitive Behavioural Psychotherapist, Psychologist and Adjunct Teaching Fellow at Trinity College Dublin