How does sleep affect your mental health?

Amy Gallagher
Senior Sleep Physiologist at Cromwell Hospital
23 March 2022
Next review due March 2025

You are probably aware that good sleep is essential for your physical health. But do you know how important it is for your mental health too? Here, I explore how getting regular and quality sleep benefits your mental wellbeing. And I’ll share my top tips to help you get a better night’s rest.

woman sleeping in bed with phone next to her

Why is sleep so important for your mental wellbeing?

Sleep is a time for rest and repair. This is important for all areas of your body – from your heart to your immune system. And it is true for your mental health too. One reason for this is that, when you sleep, your brain processes your memories and thoughts. This can help your brain to ‘focus’ on positive events, so it can boost your mental wellbeing during the daytime.

Good sleep can also help to reduce the symptoms of common mental health conditions such as depression and anxiety. But, even if you don’t have a diagnosed mental health problem, quality sleep can still help you to feel less irritable, and more positive.

Getting enough good quality sleep can also help you to:

  • be less likely to overeat, and more likely to exercise
  • cope better with your day-to-day stressors
  • have the energy you need to enjoy life

How can a lack of sleep affect your mental health?

If you don’t sleep long enough, or well enough, your brain can struggle to process your emotions. In particular, a lack of Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep can make it harder for you to feel positive throughout the day. REM sleep is where your dreams occur. It usually happens at the end of each sleep cycle. And you tend to get more REM sleep after each additional sleep cycle. This means you have the most REM sleep in the morning. Getting enough sleep makes it more likely you will get the benefits of this type of sleep. Such as having a more stable mood.

Mental health and sleep – the connection

If you sleep poorly, it can affect your mental health. But also, if you struggle with chronic mental health conditions such as depression or anxiety, you might find you have trouble sleeping too. Prioritising good sleep is one way you can reduce your risk of having poor mental health. But it’s also important to take steps to tackle any ongoing mental health problems you have.

If you feel very anxious a lot of the time, you may experience something known as hyperarousal at night-time. This is where you feel too alert to switch off and rest. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) is a helpful tool to tackle anxiety. It helps train the brain to challenge unhelpful or scary thoughts and replace them with more realistic ones.

If you have depression, then you might find you are more sleepy than usual in the daytime. Taking naps can be useful here. But they can make it harder for you to fall asleep at night. So, it’s important that you limit them to around 20 minutes and try to stick to a regular sleep cycle. This makes it less likely they will disrupt your natural body clock (circadian rhythm). Talking therapies, and medication - if needed, may be able to improve your symptoms of depression. This could help you to get better rest at night too.

What can you do to sleep better?

There are many other steps that you can take to help improve the length and quality of your sleep. Why not start by keeping a sleep diary? – which is an easy way to track your sleep quality. This will help to show you if anything you do effects how well you sleep. For example, perhaps using screens late at night, or drinking alcohol in the evening means you don’t sleep so deeply. Then you can try adjusting your routine to see if this helps.

You could also try to reduce your stress levels during the day to help you switch off better at night. You might like to try the following.

  • Write your worries down at a set time each day – planning for how you’ll tackle them.
  • Spend 10-20 minutes practising active relaxation such as breathing techniques or a short meditation. There are many apps and online aids to help.
  • Make time for a form of physical movement you enjoy – this could be dancing, yoga, swimming or just a stroll in the park.
  • Limit alcohol close to bedtime and remember to avoid caffeine after lunch.

If you are regularly struggling to sleep well, consider seeing your GP. They’ll discuss your sleeping habits and give you advice and support. You could show them your sleep diary, as this may help them to spot any sleep conditions you may have.

If you’re worried about your mental health, our direct access service aims to provide you with the advice, support and treatment you need as quickly as possible. You’ll be able to get mental health advice and support usually without the need for a GP referral. Learn more today.

Amy Gallagher
Amy Gallagher
Senior Sleep Physiologist at Cromwell Hospital

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