How Does Sleep Affect Your Mental Health?
Your sleep and your mental health are closely connected. In fact, it is a two-way relationship in which the quality of your sleep affects the level of your mental wellbeing and vice versa.
That means if you are experiencing mental health problems, you are more likely to develop sleep disorders such as insomnia. At the same time, if you do not get enough sleep, your mental performance decreases significantly, as this study published by the American Academy of Sleep Medicine (AASM) suggests. It shows that poor sleeping has the same effects on your brain like binge drinking and marijuana use.
If you feel mentally exhausted, for example, at work, it might be time to give sleep a higher priority in your life.
Why is sleep crucial for mental health at work?
For many of us, work plays a significant role in our lives. Work is where we spend much of our time, and where we socialize and make our friends. Having a fulfilling job is essential for gaining confidence, and it positively impacts your mental health and general wellbeing. At least that’s the theory…
The problem is that so many of us just don’t feel that way. Do you know that feeling when you look around in your office, and none of your colleagues seems happy to be working there? No smiling people who are having positive conversations. Instead, everyone seems to be out for themselves. In case you are working in a really toxic environment, you might even be experiencing a lot of infighting and paranoia as well as gossip and rumors. No wonder that there is little to no enthusiasm at such a workplace and it is definitely not an environment in which you can thrive.
Sadly enough, that kind of work environment is not a rarity. So it comes as no surprise that one of the leading causes of sick leave is mental health problems in the workplace. People often blame high-stress levels and poor work-life balance as the main risk factors. As a consequence, the main focus of most programmes to improve the mental wellbeing of the employees is to decrease work-related distress and increase resilience.
While activities to relieve stress are indeed vital for a more balanced mental health as well as to improve poor morale at the workplace, it is evident that such programmes are in most cases solely daytime-focused. However, recent research suggests that for your mental wellbeing during the day there is another factor equally important: to get a good night’s sleep.
For a long time, poor sleep and sleep disorders were mainly seen as a symptom of mental illness. Nowadays, it is well known that it is often also the other way round: not getting enough sleep can increase the risk of mental illness. The truth is that if you are not sleeping enough or experiencing disrupted sleep continuously, you are prone to get stuck in a vicious cycle whereby your lack of sleep is fuelling your mental health risk, and vice versa.
What is the connection between poor sleep and mental health?
Let me ask you this: How are you feeling after a restless night in which you were waking up every few hours with a racing brain? It’s doubtful that you are waking up the next morning feeling energized and ready to tackle the day. Instead, you start the day feeling tired, unhappy, or grumpy for no obvious reason. At work, you have problems to concentrate and to stay focused. But the worst thing is that you may see yourself as well as the people and the conditions around you in a much more negative light. Inadequate sleep can really take the joy of life from you in no time.
Unfortunately, this is all very natural if you don’t sleep well. And it shows that poor sleep has a significant impact on your mental health. In fact, many of the chemicals produced by your brain are responsible for both, for you sleep well as well as for managing your mental health. That’s why it is not surprising that when one fails, so does the other.
Lack of sleep can have the same effect as high levels of negative stress. Same as stress, poor sleep has the capacity to rewire your brain in a way that that part of your brain becomes dominant which is responsible for triggering fight- and flight-reactions. If this state is prolonged, you are on much higher risk for depression or may even experience even strong emotions of anxiety, leading to one or more of the following symptoms:
- Lack of energy, motivation or interest
- Problems concentrating
- Feeling overwhelmed even by simple daily tasks
- Fear or panic in everyday situations
- Constant worrying or anxiousness
- Sudden panic or anxiety attacks without any apparent trigger
At the same time, the challenging mental state you are in due to your disturbed sleep can trigger more serious (sleep) disorders such as insomnia, sleep apnoea or daytime fatigue. Depending on whether you are in a more depressed state or rather feel increased anxiousness, the symptoms can be different. If you are suffering from anxiety, it might be difficult for you to fall asleep. The constant nagging worry just makes it impossible for you to wind down and relax which is necessary to be able to fall to sleep. Whereas if you are feeling depressed, you may instead tend to oversleep, and still, feel constantly tired during the day requiring frequent naps.
Can better sleep lead to better mental health?
Let’s now turn to the second part of the two-way relationship between sleep and mental health by looking at the question if better sleep also leads to better mental health. In recent years, much attention has been paid to this question, and today it is considered proven that good quality sleep has a tremendous positive impact on your mental wellbeing.
The reason is that sleep is the #1 resource for your body’s repair and recovery system. And it is also the most natural state in which your mind and body can find total rest. It is during your sleep when your body functions such as your immune, skeletal and muscular system rejuvenate themselves. If you have proper rest, your hormones are in balance, your metabolism gets a boost, and you are feeling energized.
But what’s even more important are probably the mental benefits of good quality sleep because it actively improves your brain function and ensures emotional balance. If you are sleep deprived your brain does not get enough glucose which is vital for your thinking process and the control of your emotions. To be more precise, the prefrontal cortex, that part of your brain responsible for controlling logical reasoning and for keeping your emotions in check, will not function efficiently and just remains offline.
Why are you more productive with the right amount of sleep?
It might sound a bit abstract if I tell you that you will have better ideas and be better able to distinguish between right or wrong if you have enough sleep. But if you think about it, I’m sure you can remember days when you just seem unable to make an important decision. Or even worse, you probably made a decision, but it was totally the wrong one with negative consequences on essential areas in your life.
Later on, you blame yourself or external factors such as high levels of stress and excessive work pressure for your failure. Whereas chances are that the real reason for your poor decision making was poor sleep. Due to the lack of rest, your brain simply didn’t have the opportunity to build up the required energy to function correctly. Sleep is indispensable for your brain to perform and to give you the ability to learn, memorize, and make logical decisions and choices.
Equally vital is sleep for keeping you emotionally balanced and staying cool-headed. While your stress levels tend to run higher near bedtime, stress hormones are naturally suppressed during sleep. That means that sleep is the time when your brain is allowed to process the unwanted emotional stress which you may have experienced during the day. At the same time, it helps you to prepare yourself to deal with new challenges you may face the next day. If you don’t get the right amount of quality sleep, your brain is just not able to review the past day’s stress which makes it difficult for you to cope with stressful situations in the future.
I hope you understand the many benefits of good sleep for your physical and mental wellbeing. On the other hand, being negligent about the quantity and quality of your sleep adversely affects your health. It demolishes your immune system and can lead to cardiovascular disease, stroke, and heart failure. Furthermore, the link between poor sleep and poor mental health is very close, and it may even be an early warning sign of depression or an anxiety disorder.
Therefore, if you are thinking about how to improve your mental health and how to become more productive, then giving yourself the gift of a good night’s sleep is the right answer. Don’t delay the process to make sleep a priority in your life. You have to act right now. Remember, sleep is the single most effective thing you can do to reset your brain and body health every day.