How Sleep Deprivation Hurts Your Mental Health

Published on: 02 Mar 2017
sleep deprivation impact

Updated on 3/19/21

We’ve all had nights where we toss and turn in bed, eyes open, mind spinning as we wait for sleep to take over. The minutes turn into hours as the numbers on the clock tick past. As those potential hours of sleep diminish, we know the morning will come with a fog of fatigue. Yet, we just can’t seem to fall asleep. 

This situation is common for adults, and might lead to constant exhaustion in daily life for many people. Sleep deprivation can be due to many issues, such as stress and illness. However, sleep issues are treatable and can be solved with a therapist or doctor and dedication to good habits. 

Our society normalizes not getting enough sleep, often framing sleep as a barrier to productivity, but lack of sleep comes with serious ramifications. Sleep deprivation increases health problems, impairs proper functioning, and inhibits safe choices. We need to prioritize quality rest and stop championing sleep deprivation. 

What is Sleep Deprivation?

Sleep deprivation is the lack of adequate sleep required for optimum functioning. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, one in three American adults do not get the recommended seven hours of sleeping a night. That’s a significant amount of people walking around sleep-deprived.

It’s challenging to get through the day while sleep-deprived. Dr. Marika Lindholm, Ph.D. says, “The more sleep deprived you are, the more fragile you feel. Small problems can feel insurmountable. This mental state interferes with our interpersonal relationships.” Little good comes from sleep deprivation. Even if it seems to give us more hours in the day, those hours are hard to endure.

Signs and Symptoms of Sleep Deprivation

Everyone experiences symptoms of sleep deprivation in varying ways. Sleep deprivation harms your ability to properly function, no matter the symptoms. There are several signs to look for if you think you are dealing with sleep deprivation. If you aren’t getting enough sleep and feel like it’s making you irritable, moody, and impairing your physical health, you likely are sleep deprived. Signs of sleep deprivation generally include: 

  • Fatigue and exhaustion 
  • Irritability
  • Mood dysregulation
  • Difficulty focusing
  • Impaired decision making and judgment
  • Challenges processing new information
  • Less effective memory functioning
  • Muscle pain and headaches 
  • Suppressed immune system

Experiencing any of these symptoms is a sign of sleep deprivation to take seriously. Not getting enough sleep for one night may seem trivial, but the more it happens the more your body and mind will recede from optimum functioning. These signs and symptoms are also closely connected to health issues, whether an illness is the cause of your sleep deprivation or vice versa. 

The Health Impacts of Sleep Deprivation

The most significant impact of sleep deprivation is on our mental and physical health. Sleep deprivation can stem from general stress, but if it persists, it could have negative long-term implications. Sleep deprivation can also be the result of lifestyle choices, so you should consider the following list when thinking about the future.

Lack of sleep increases the risk of: 

  • High blood pressure
  • Diabetes 
  • Heart disease
  • Shorter lifespan 
  • Weight gain
  • Cancer
  • Stroke
  • Migraines
  • Dementia 

If you are already struggling with health problems, it’s even more important that you get adequate sleep because it’s how your body heals. “For anyone who struggles with mental or medical ailments, lack of sleep is even more dangerous,” Dr. Lindholm says. “The body and brain need the regenerative gifts of sleep.”

How Sleep Deprivation Harms Mental Health

Sleep and mental health are closely related; sleep affects mood just as mental health affects sleep. Often difficulty sleeping is a symptom of mental illness. Lack of sleep also makes you more susceptible to declining mental health. As Dr. Lindholm said, sleep helps heal your mental health, but it can be a challenge for someone struggling with mental illness to get the sleep needed.

Those with depression often struggle with sleeping, whether it be difficulty getting enough or getting too much but not feeling well-rested. If someone with depression is sleep deprived it makes it even harder to function during the day. Given sleep deprivation also increased irritability and fatigue, it compounds the challenges of depression. Finding treatments for depression often helps with symptoms of poor sleep. 

Anxiety is also often closely related to sleep deprivation. Difficulty falling or staying asleep is a common symptom of anxiety. Anxiety disorders and/or panic attacks often lead to intense worries and adrenaline keeping someone up at night. With anxiety, it is difficult to relax the brain and body enough for quality sleep. Like depression, anxiety can also lead to chronic insomnia and sleep deprivation.

Coping with any mental illness is exhausting, whether it’s depression or anxiety or another mental illness. Sleep deprivation is not your fault. Feeling sleep-deprived from mental illness is common. Know you’re not alone and there is help available if you’re struggling.

Sleep deprivation and safety concerns

Lack of sleep can have serious repercussions for individuals and those around them. Getting less than seven hours of sleep greatly increases your potential for car crashes, according to research by Oxford University. Sleep deprivation is linked to seven percent of all car accidents and 16% percent of fatal crashes. Sleep harms not only the safety of the individual struggling but others around them. 

Sleep deprivation is also linked to other types of harmful situations. Sleep deprivation is a factor in causing many tragic events of human error, like the Chernobyl meltdown, the space shuttle Challenger explosion, and the Exxon Valdez oil spill, according to Dr. Lindholm. Lives and the environment could’ve been saved if the people responsible were well-rested and thinking clearly. Sleep deprivation has detrimental consequences and should be expected of working adults.

How to Improve Your Sleep and Avoid Sleep Deprivation

Put simply, getting at least seven hours of sleep is the best solution for sleep deprivation. This is easier said than done of course, especially when dealing with other issues like stress and/or illness. It’s still important to do your best at cultivating good sleep hygiene and setting aside enough time for quality sleep.

Tips to improve sleep

  • Aim to go to bed and get up at the same time each day. This routine will help your body and mind know when it’s time to sleep versus be active.
  • Do your best to monitor and limit screen time. New research shows that smartphone addiction is linked to poor sleep. Setting app time limits or turning off your phone when you don’t need it can be helpful.
  • Turn digital screens off one hour before bedtime and keep the phone away from the bed. The blue light of your phone will keep you up. Try to get into the habit of reading or journaling before bed instead of checking your phone. Incorporate guided sleep meditations (like this) or grounding practices before bed — meditation will help calm your mind and prepare your body for sleep.
  • Find a nightly routine that works for you and stick to it. By carving out time to relax and wind down, you’ll be able to fall asleep faster. Self-care throughout the day also helps you to relax once it’s time to turn the light off. If you don’t have downtime during the day, it is enticing to stay up late to try to compensate, but this perpetuates a vicious cycle of sleep deprivation. Remember that sleep is self-care and it’s necessary for your daily functioning.
  • If you use caffeine to get through the day, know your limits. Stop your caffeine consumption four to six hours before bed. Caffeine can stay in your system for up to 12 hours though, so you may need more time than that. 

Prioritizing sleep can greatly increase your quality of life and support your mental and physical health. Additionally, making lifestyle changes and sticking to a routine can significantly improve your sleep. It will also make you more efficient and focused during working hours. Balancing rest at night and productivity during the day makes a paramount difference. 

Therapy Helps Alleviate Sleep Deprivation

If you feel like your sleep deprivation is caused by more than poor habits and choices, you might want to talk to someone about it. Talkspace offers online therapy with licensed therapists who can help you both identify the root of whatever it is that prevents you from getting quality sleep and develop healthy practices to incorporate into your routine.

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