Putting mental health to bed: can sleep improve mental health problems?
Problems with sleep are common in people with mental health issues. It is often the view that sleep problems are a symptom or consequence of the mental health condition and as a result, is given little attention when it comes to trying to manage or overcome the mental health problem. However, another perspective is that sleep disturbances are a contributing casual factor in the development of many mental health issues.
Numerous sleep disorders exist, with the most common being insomnia. Insomnia affects approximately 35% of adults, causing problems getting to sleep (sleep onset) and staying asleep through the night (sleep maintenance). A vicious circle can ensue when considering the relationship between sleep issues like insomnia and mental health conditions. A mental health condition can cause a person to struggle to sleep adequately, which in turn can make them feel worse and so the mental health issue intensifies, which in turn makes adequate sleep difficult and so on. It is therefore not surprising that insomnia is now classified as comorbid with, rather than secondary to, a mental health diagnosis.
An increasing amount of research suggests social media can have a detrimental impact on people’s mental health. The role social media has on sleep disturbances, which subsequently links to poor mental health, is also of importance. Research has shown the more time adolescents spent on screen-focused activities such as social media, the more problems they had getting to sleep and the less sleep they had during the night. These sleep problems were then associated with a rise in symptoms of insomnia and depression. Problematic internet use and even internet addiction has been associated with sleep disorders and depression among adults and adolescents.
Technology is ubiquitous and heavily relied upon. The result of such technology usage often includes spending more time at the computer or on a phone than intended (working, socialising or gaming), mental overload, or neglecting other activities and needs, such as sleep.
Insufficient sleep duration, poor quality of sleep, problems initiating sleep and excessive daytime sleepiness have all been strongly associated with mental health issues, particularly anxiety. Anxiety symptoms have been found to be more associated with sleep disturbances, whereas depression symptoms have be found to be more associated with greater daytime sleepiness.
While the treatment of psychiatric issues frequently improves sleep, addressing sleep disturbances independently may result in better mental health. Not being able to sleep, having little sleep and/or poor sleep quality on a regular basis can be distressing and make people feel very low and irritable. Identifying and seeking help for sleep disturbances may not only improve the mental health condition being experienced by an individual, but also improve their overall quality of life. Intervening on sleep at an early stage may be a way to avert the onset of clinical disorders.
Interventions to enhance sleep and subsequently, improve mental health conditions, are clearly of significant importance to people struggling with their mental health. These may include talk therapies such as counselling, to help explore patterns of thinking that could be contributing to keeping someone awake and develop new ways of thinking that prevent negative and disruptive patterns. If someone is seeing a psychiatrist about their mental health condition, then discussing possible medications to aid sleep may be beneficial. Improving sleep routines can also be helpful. Maintaining the same bedtime and time to wake up in the morning, doing things that relax you before bedtime, avoiding alcohol and caffeine during the evening, and ensuring distracting light and noise are limited, can all contribute to a better night sleep.
Sleep problems may be both a cause and result of mental health problems. As it is a bidirectional relationship, it is worth addressing concerns around sleep, rather than just accepting poor sleep as a symptom or result of a mental health problem. Trying to improve sleep could lessen the severity of a mental health problem as well as enhance overall health and wellbeing.