Sleep and Mental Health: 3 Tips for a Good Night’s Rest

By Allie Lewin, LMSW

I was recently asked about the effects of sleep on mental health for an article on HelloGiggles and realized that while it’s common knowledge that getting enough sleep is important for one’s physical health, how sleep affects mental health is not widely understood. In fact, living in a busy city like Manhattan, often it seems not getting enough sleep is worn like badge of honor, somehow proving you are working hard and sacrificing rest for productivity and success. However, the reality is, in order to be truly successful both at work and in your personal life, getting enough sleep is paramount, especially if you are prone to symptoms of anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues.

Studies consistently show that lack of sleep affects mental health on multiple levels as it increases stress, anxiety, irritability, depression, and anger. When we lack sleep, we feel tired and lethargic. As a result, we are less likely to engage in social interactions, exercise, and take part in other activities that provide us with a sense of connection, pleasure, and accomplishment. In addition, lacking physical and mental energy, we are less likely to follow through with goals we set for ourselves, whether it’s making it to the gym that day, completing an errand, or working on an extra-curricular project. These perceived mini-failures ultimately influence how we see ourselves as well as how we view our ability to function in the world. Lack of social connection and follow through with activities that provide a sense of pleasure and mastery leads to increased negative thoughts and beliefs about ourselves, our present lives, and our future that produces feelings associated with depression and anxiety. 

Chronic lack of sleep directly affects multiple parts of the brain including the prefrontal cortex, in charge of reasoning and decision-making, as well as the amygdala, associated with the fear response. This impact on the prefrontal cortex can mean that when a person is chronically sleep deprived, their ability to make sense of interactions and experiences in helpful, realistic ways is impaired. As a result, a person may perceive potentially ambiguous and even positive situations in ways that elicit exaggerated feelings of sadness, hopelessness, guilt, and fear (emotions found in depression and anxiety). In addition, the effect on decision-making capability means the person is more likely to behave in ways that amplify these negative states of mind. When a person is chronically sleep deprived, the amygdala becomes more active. This leads to an increase in cortisol levels, triggering the fight or flight response, which produces symptoms of anxiety. Cortisol has a stimulating effect so this increase in production makes you feel more alert, which interferes with your brain’s ability to slow down and rest. All this suggests that not getting enough sleep increases anxiety and heightened anxiety impedes ability to sleep! 

So what can you do to get better sleep and alleviate additional anxiety, depression, and irritability? Here are a few tips: 

  1. Resist the urge for that afternoon cup of coffee
    According to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, the half life for caffeine is 3-5 hours, which means it takes your body anywhere between 3 to 5 hours to eliminate half of the substance. The remaining caffeine can stay in your body for much longer, and as a result, can drastically interfere with your ability to fall and stay asleep if consumed too late in the day. So if being well rested is a priority for you, drinking coffee, soda, or caffeinated tea in the afternoon is probably not a great idea. If you are looking for an afternoon pick-me-up, opt for a green juice or try fitting in a lunchtime workout class. 
  2. Make mental checklists well before bed
    People with anxiety or just a busy mind tend to have difficulty falling sleep. Sometimes laying in bed is the first time throughout the day when attention and energy is not being directed to something specific (other than attempting to sleep) and our brains begin to wander, processing the events of the day, and preparing for the next. This can lead to rumination and mental checklists that interfere with falling asleep. Try to set aside time well before bed for this mental processing and preparation. By giving your brain permission to process and plan in advance of bedtime, you will be putting yourself in a position more likely to enable sleep. 
  3. Rid yourself of technology at least 30 min before sleep
    Engaging in technology, including your phone, computer, or TV right before bed is one way to set yourself up for a poor night of sleep. The blue light emitted by such technology decreases production of the hormone melatonin, which makes it harder to fall and stay asleep. In addition to a decrease in melatonin, engaging with such media before bed sends signals to your brain that it still needs to do work and as a result interferes with it’s ability to slow down and initiate sleep. To ensure you’re giving yourself the best chance at getting a good night of rest, give yourself an hour before bed to start winding down. Instead of reaching for your phone or sending that last email, try doing some light reading, listening to a podcast, or using a guided meditation/relaxation exercise. 

Allie Lewin is a therapist at Cobb Psychotherapy. If you would like support in prioritizing and taking care of your mental health, contact Cobb Psychotherapy and see how therapy can help.