What happens to your mental health when you miss out on sleep?

Our sleep health and mental wellbeing are intrinsically linked

With the COVID-19 pandemic dominating the past year, resulting in increased worry, stress and isolation, it’s now more important than ever to stay in tune with your mental health and practice self-care. This includes ensuring you get a good night’s sleep.

Sleep and your mental health are undeniably linked. So, let’s take a closer look at what happens when you miss out on the rest you need.

What does sleep do to your brain?

Your brain relies on sleep in order to take care of itself. When we sleep, our brain activity fluctuates and increases or decreases depending on the sleep stage we’re experiencing. During NREM (non-rapid eye movement) sleep, our overall brain activity slows, but there are quick bursts of energy. Meanwhile, during REM sleep, brain activity picks up rapidly.

Each stage of sleep plays a role in our overall brain health, working to enable better thinking, learning and memory. Many studies, including those carried out by the Sleep Foundation, have concluded that brain activity during sleep has a huge impact on our emotional and mental health.

What happens to our mental health when we miss out on sleep?

Because sleep is no important for our mental health, experiencing periods of sleep deprivation can have a severe and negative impact on your emotional and mental state. Sleep is key when it comes to regulating our mood and helping us deal with stress, so missing out on sleep is associated with increased anger, depression, anxiety and more. In fact, sleep deprivation has also been shown to increase the risk of suicidal ideas or behaviours.

It was once assumed that sleep problems were a symptom of mental health disorders, but this is increasingly being disregarded in favour of a bidirectional relationship between the two.

In other words, sleep problems may be both a cause and consequence of mental health problems. Sleep deprivation and mental health concerns can create a vicious cycle in which the more sleep deprivation you experience, the worse your mental health becomes, the worse you sleep, and so on.

Improving your sleep health is a matter of routine

It’s clear that sleep is a key component when it comes to looking after our mental health, just like following a healthy diet, exercising regularly, socialising with friends and family, and asking for help when we feel we need it.

Improving your sleep health requires a clear routine that you can stick you every night. Aim to go to bed and wake up at around the same time every day, giving yourself time to wind down in the evening away from your smartphone. Reading, gentle yoga and meditation have all been shown to be effective in helping us relax in the run-up to bedtime.

If you find that stress is keeping you up at night, consider audiobooks or ASMR recordings that can help to take your mind off things. Mental health apps like Calm and Headspace feature bedtime stories for adults designed to draw our minds away from the hustle and bustle of daily life. And of course, if you notice a sharp increase in your stress and anxiety levels, it is always best to seek support from your GP.

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