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Sleep and Mental Health

The relationship between sleep and mental health—both positive and negative—is multifaceted and complex. But in general, evidence consistently shows that healthy amounts of sleep are associated with better mood, improved productivity, and even heightened satisfaction with life in general.

The relationship between sleep and mental health disorders, on the other hand, is somewhat murkier; many psychological disorders present with sleep-related symptoms, but experts aren’t always sure whether poor sleep leads to depression, ADHD, or anxiety, or vice versa. But for most patients with mental health concerns, addressing any related sleep problems is often a good place to start; it may not be a cure-all, but it will likely bring physical and mental benefits that put the person on the path to better well-being.

How Sleep Boosts Well-Being

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Though scientists are still investigating all that happens in our brains and bodies during sleep, what has been discovered is clear: When it comes to mental well-being, sleep matters tremendously. During sleep, the body and brain repair themselves, strengthening the immune system—which has close ties to mental health—bolstering the stress response, and recharging the systems that help regulate emotions, consolidate memories and thoughts, focus, and connect to others. High-quality sleep, in short, can improve someone's life in a number of ways.

Does sleep affect happiness?

A substantial body of evidence suggests that sleep and happiness are closely linked, and that their relationship is likely bi-directional. One large analysis, for instance, found that people who reported greater positive affect in their daily life were more likely to sleep better overall; the improved sleep, in turn, appeared to bolster their positive mood. Research in children has shown that sleep deprivation is linked to more negative moods and challenges with emotional regulation; on the other hand, children and teens who get adequate amounts of sleep report feeling happier.

Is good sleep tied to life satisfaction?

Research has found that better quality sleep, longer sleep duration, and greater consistency in the amount of time spent asleep each night all appear to be associated with greater satisfaction with one’s life, a commonly used measure of overall well-being. Though it remains to be definitively established whether increased life satisfaction is caused by improved sleep or vice versa, the overall evidence suggests that focusing on sleep may be one potential pathway to improving contentment with one's lot in life.

Poor Sleep, Stress, and Mental Illness

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Disordered sleep often goes hand in hand with a lower mood, heightened anxiety, or increased stress. But though almost everyone has plenty of personal experience with a spike in stress or an emotional outburst triggered by a night of poor sleep—and countless others experience depression-, ADHD-, or anxiety-related sleep challenges that can persist for months or years at a time—they may not make the connection directly, and may still fail to prioritize sleep as a result. Unfortunately, sleep problems and poor mental health tend to reinforce each other, creating a cycle of distress that may require professional help to overcome. Catching the problem early, and taking deliberate steps to combat it, is often the best approach for breaking the cycle.

Can sleep deprivation make you more emotional?

Yes. Because inadequate sleep interferes with the connection between the amygdala (which processes emotions) and the prefrontal cortex (which manages impulse control and decision-making), sleep deprivation has been closely linked to heightened emotional reactivity. For many, this means that after a night (or several) of poor sleep, they’re crankier, quicker to anger, more sensitive to perceived slights, and may respond more impulsively to daily annoyances that they would normally take in stride. 

How does depression affect your sleep?

Depression and disordered sleep—either sleeping too little or sleeping too much—frequently go hand in hand. In fact, some experts have suggested that sleep problems like insomnia should be considered as a core symptom of depression. But whether sleep problems lead to depression or vice versa has yet to be fully teased out. Most experts agree that addressing both, rather than focusing on one or the other, is the most effective path to optimal treatment.

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