The Impact of Sleep on Mood and Mental Well-Being
Have you ever woken up early to start a work week and experienced a profound “case of the Mondays” -- that feeling of drowsiness, lack of energy, irritability, and overall malaise that comes with the start of a new work week. Or has a lack of sleep ever caused you to uncharacteristically snap at a friend or family member over some minor issue? If so, you know from experience what science is now confirming: sleep has a huge impact on our mood and mental well-being.
In both the short and long term, the amount and quality of our sleep can play a huge role in our mental health including how we feel and how we act toward other people. Even just one night of insufficient sleep can bring on stress and a tendency to become easily frustrated. Continued or chronic sleep deprivation can have even more profound effects, significantly impacting a person’s overall mood and in some cases leading to issues like depression and anxiety. More and more research is establishing links between depression and insomnia, and because conditions like depression can make it harder to fall asleep, these issues often become part of a self-perpetuating cycle.
Both sleep and mental health are big, complex topics that still require years of dedicated research to better understand. Nevertheless, the more we learn, the more we find that sleep has to be considered a key part of a person’s wellness, which includes their physical and emotional health.
In this guide, we’ll go into more detail about what is known about sleep and mood and mental well-being. We’ll also cover a range of tips that experts agree can help to improve your sleep and put you on the right track to feeling healthier, happier, and well-rested.
What Is the Relationship Between Sleep and Mood?
Mood refers to our emotional state, and mood can be thought of as something that is both general and specific. For example, a person may generally have a positive and happy mood but at times have a mood marked by sadness or anger. How much sleep we get and the quality of that sleep can affect both our general and specific moods.
Not getting enough sleep can contribute to a negative mood. Someone who is sleep deprived is more likely to be sad, irritable, frustrated, stressed out, fatigued, and/or similar emotions. This can occur even when sleep is only restricted by a few hours as was found in a study by researchers at the University of Pennsylvania. In that study, participants had their sleep reduced by one-third (to an average of just under 5 hours) for one week. Though studies like this have highlighted how lack of sleep can negatively affect our mood, the odds are that you have dozens of examples from everyday life of seeing how daytime sleepiness can contribute to these negative emotions. If lack of sleep is chronic or persistent, it can take on a greater impact over time.
On the flip side, getting plenty of sleep can contribute to a happier and more positive mood. Even in the study mentioned before, participants generally found that their mood rebounded when they started getting more sleep. Starting your day feeling refreshed can give you more energy, gratitude, and overall pleasantness. This can translate to how you feel during the day and how you go about interacting with other people.
Keep in mind that this impact of sleep on mood is not just about how much you sleep. Though quantity is important, so is sleep quality. If your sleep is fragmented or very light, there’s a good chance that you won’t get the same kind of mood-related benefits as someone who is getting an equal number of sleep hours but who has smoother progressions through their sleep cycles with fewer interruptions.
How Does Sleep Affect Emotional Reactivity?
Emotional reactivity refers to the situation when our immediate emotional reactions are difficult to control. This can manifest in things like outbursts, withdrawing, lashing out, feeling hurt, or otherwise having limited ability to manage a response to an emotional stimulus. Some people may think of emotional reactivity as defensiveness or the way in which someone may recoil when confronted with an emotional situation.
While some amount of emotional reactivity can be normal from time to time, emotional wellness benefits from being mindful and aware of one’s emotions so that they do not become all-encompassing. Unfortunately, poor sleep makes this more difficult as our mood and mental bandwidth are both diminished by lack of sleep. As you’ve likely witnessed personally at some point in your life, even a person who is usually poised or measured emotionally may be more prone to volatile reactions if they haven’t been getting the rest that they need.
Unfortunately, this type of emotional reactivity can stifle communication and short-circuit interpersonal relationships. Emotional reactivity in one person may spur the same in others, making it even more complicated to try to bridge divides to resolve misunderstandings and hurt emotions. This can ultimately lead to harmed relationships and further emotional difficulties.
How Does Insomnia Affect Mental Health?
Insomnia is a broad term that is used to describe difficulty falling asleep, the inability to stay asleep over the course of the night, and/or early morning awakening. When insomnia continues over time, it is called chronic insomnia, and studies have found it to be connected to a number of mental health issues.
Epidemiological studies are those that gather information about health conditions and look for patterns and connections in that data. These studies usually are not able to prove or explain causality, but they can reveal connections that tell us a lot about different health issues. Epidemiological studies, such as those that use regular sleep surveys and health data, have found that there is significant overlap between insomnia and several different mental health disorders including anxiety, depression, ADHD, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia. This doesn’t mean that not getting enough sleep causes those conditions, but it does mean that these issues are found to be co-existing in many patients.
The Bidirectional Relationship Between Sleep and Mental Health Issues
When looking at the relationship between sleep problems like insomnia and mental health, it quickly becomes clear that these problems can be mutually reinforcing. For example, there is evidence that a lack of sleep can increase a person’s propensity for anxiety. At the same time, being anxious, including anxious about falling asleep, may prevent someone from getting enough sleep. In this way, these problems can feed into one another and become more difficult to resolve.
Sleep and Anxiety
While anxiety and fear can be totally normal in certain circumstances, in anxiety disorders they become overwhelming and overpowering. Anxiety may be triggered by extremely minor situations and can be paralyzing or debilitating. Studies have found that people who suffer from insomnia are much more likely to struggle with anxiety. Research at the University of California Berkeley found that without adequate sleep, parts of the brain that are related to anxiety tend to become more agitated. This makes people who are prone to anxiety even more likely to be negatively affected by sleep deprivation. As a result, one approach to reducing anxiety in many people is improving sleep quality and quantity,
Sleep and Depression
Depression is a complex condition but can include many symptoms including intense feelings of sadness, lack of energy, limited concentration, excessive daytime sleepiness, insomnia, and others. Many of these symptoms are related to sleep and can be amplified when a person isn’t getting enough sleep. Again, this doesn’t mean that everyone who has insomnia will become depressed. But there does appear to be a higher incidence of depression in people who have major sleep problems, and these sleep problems also tend to be reinforced as symptoms of depression.
Sleep and Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
Lack of sleep tends to be an issue for many people who have ADHD. This can be a function of the condition itself or many of the medications that may be used to try to help manage ADHD. With fragmented and/or limited sleep, issues of daytime concentration and mood can be further challenged for people with ADHD.
Sleep and Bipolar Disorder
Bipolar disorder is not a common condition in the general population (affecting an estimated 2.8% of adults in the United States), but sleeping problems are normal among people with this diagnosis. People with bipolar disorder have periods of being manic and being depressed, and sleep can be disrupted in both stages. Both can cause insomnia, and during depressed stages, some patients may sleep excessively. Overall, the symptoms of bipolar disorder tend to make it much harder to get a good night’s sleep, which can make it even more complicated to try to manage the symptoms of this mental illness.
Sleep and Schizophrenia
People with schizophrenia, which affects around 1% of people in the U.S., tend to have irregular and interrupted sleep. As with the other conditions discussed in this section, this can make it harder to try to address more serious schizophrenic episodes. Some research indicates that by treating sleeping problems in people with schizophrenia, the symptoms of the condition may be reduced.
How Can You Sleep Better to Improve Mood?
Since we know that sleep can have a profound influence on our mood as well as on our overall mental health, it makes sense to try to focus on getting the best sleep possible even if that can at times feel like a challenge. In this section, we’ll review some ways that you can try to get the most of each night’s sleep.
It Helps to Get Help
Though there are things you can do on your own, improving your mental state and mood with sleep can be enhanced by working with a trained professional. For many mental health issues, working with a counselor or psychiatrist can be of tremendous benefit. Studies have found that talk therapy can reduce the extent of many mental health problems and can also reduce insomnia. There’s even a name for a specific type of talk therapy -- cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia (CBT-I) -- that helps take on issues like anxiety or depression and their impact on sleep.
It can also be useful to talk with a doctor or nurse especially if you find that you have had other sleep-related issues like chronic snoring or waking up with headaches. Some patients may have an underlying sleep issue like sleep apnea that can be more effectively diagnosed and treated by working directly with a health professional.
Improving Sleep Through Sleep Hygiene
Sleep research has increasingly shown that it’s easier to fall asleep and stay asleep if you build the right habits. In general, this is referred to as sleep hygiene, and while it can take some effort and planning, it can really pay off with improving your overall sleep routine. There is no single “best” routine for sleep hygiene, so it’s OK to make some modifications based on your own needs and preferences, but general principles of sleep hygiene include:
- Go to bed and wake up at consistent times: even during vacations or on weekends, it’s advisable to try to go to bed and wake up at the same time. This can help your body adjust to a normal schedule that ideally helps your circadian rhythm be in tune with the local daylight hours.
- Follow the same routine before bed: the ideal pre-sleep routine differs for each person, but try to go through the same set of steps every night. This helps strengthen the associations in your mind of this routine and sleeping.
- Limit daytime naps: napping for too long or too late in the day can make it much harder to fall asleep when you need to at night.
- Build a better bedroom: think about all the aspects of your sleep environment -- light, sound, smells, your mattress, bedding, temperature, etc. -- and work to make your bedroom the most comfortable place possible. If needed, consider products like a new mattress, blackout curtains, a white noise machine, or whatever else is necessary to limit the things that could disrupt your sleep.
- Limit screen time: unfortunately, the light and stimulus from your phone (or tablet or laptop) can make it much harder for your mind and body to smoothly transition into sleep. Try to limit screen time leading up to bed and to avoid using these devices in bed.
- Find ways to relax: it may be deep breathing or listening to calming music or using aromatherapy, but it can be extremely useful to find a way to relax as you’re going to bed. You also likely want to strategize about how you can stay calm if you are struggling to fall asleep or if you wake up unexpectedly in the night.
- Build in time for exercise: daily exercise can be beneficial both for improving your sleep and improving your mood and mental health. It doesn’t have to be Olympic-level training, but taking walks or having some regular workouts can dramatically improve your health in a multitude of ways.
- Keep a sleep diary: it may be helpful to track what is working and not working for you with regard to your sleep as well as your mood. In a sleep journal, you can take note of your routine, bedtime, wake up time, and how you feel the next day. If you do need to work with a counselor or doctor, this can be very useful information to help them understand your sleep habits and problems.