Sleep and Mental Health: The Chicken or The Egg?

By: Nicole Singh, PhD, R. Psych

Nothing feels more invigorating than a good night’s sleep. That feeling when you open your eyes and feel replenished, rejuvenated, and ready and tackle the day.

Unfortunately, for many Canadians, mornings, when we feel well rested, have become few and far between. In fact, research suggests that 60% of Canadians feel tired most of the time and only sleep an average 6.9 hours a night, despite the recommended 8 hours. Further, recent research suggested that almost 14% of Canadians met criteria for insomnia.

This information is not surprising given that the North American culture is centered around a fast-paced and busy lifestyle, leaving sleep almost an afterthought rather than an act that is valued and prioritized. Indeed, family and social obligations, shift-work, illnesses, and distractions presented by social media and the Internet are just a few factors that interfere with achieving optimal sleep.

Sleep and Mental Health

It is well established that we need adequate sleep to feel rested and to rejuvenate our physical health, but how does sleep (or lack thereof) impact our mental health? Considerably more so than most people think.

For instance, sleep difficulties have been associated with elevated anxiety and different types of anxiety disorders. Researchers have discovered that a lack of sleep may activate brain regions that contribute to excessive worrying. Sleep deprivation and anxiety appear to go full circle as researchers have also identified that chronic worriers – individuals who are naturally more anxious and therefore more likely to develop a clinical anxiety disorder – are acutely vulnerable to the impact of insufficient sleep.

In addition to anxiety disorders, considerable research has focused on the link between sleep difficulties and depression. Depression is characterized by symptoms such as sad or irritable mood, reduced interest in pleasurable activities, difficulty concentrating, fatigue, and suicidal thoughts. Large research trials have revealed a consistent relationship between sleep and depression, with greater evidence suggesting that poor sleep quality precedes the development of depression, rather than depression preceding sleep difficulties.

However, research has also demonstrated a bi-directional relationship between sleep and depression; poor sleep quality is associated with the onset of a major depression, and depression is a major risk factor for the onset of sleep difficulties.

As a new mother, I now fully understand the challenges of sleep disruption and sleep deprivation. If it wasn’t for my supportive family (they say it takes a village for a reason!) and copious cups of coffee, I don’t know how I would have survived the first few months of my daughter’s life. While it is a well-known fact that mothers and fathers commonly experience a lack of sleep during the newborn stage, it is also recognized that this sleep deprivation is associated with mental health concerns.

sleep and mental health

For instance, women who struggle with post-partum depression have reported experiencing a longer time to fall asleep, poor sleep quality, less total sleep time, and greater sleep disturbances.  Additionally, women who report symptoms of postpartum depression have been found not only to sleep for shorter periods of time, but they also spend less time in REM sleep (i.e., deep, restorative sleep) when compared with women who do not struggle with postpartum depression.

If you are among many others who struggle with sleep and feel that your mental health may be affected, please take action. Speak to your doctor, psychologist, or other mental health professional about mental health treatment options. For instance, cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) for insomnia is a well-supported therapy that can help you develop habits that promote a healthy pattern of sleep. Pharmacological approaches are also an option.

sleep and mental health

Lastly, sleep experts, such as those at Sleep Well Baby, are also a fantastic resource to guide your baby to sleep through the night allowing the parents a more restful sleep.

As the President and Founder of Sleepwell Consulting Inc. Amanda is a Sleep Educator who works with companies of all sizes to help promote better sleep and better business.

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