A Guide to Understanding How Sleep Impacts Your Mental Health

Consistently getting a good night’s sleep can contribute to your mental well-being. Here’s what to know about the relationship between sleep and mental health.

Directly above shot of a mother embracing her depressed son on a bed at home
Getty Images

Sleep is vital to our overall well-being, but it’s particularly important for our mental health. The nights we stayed up to talk a little longer, party a little harder, or binge watch a little more may have resulted in groggy mornings. But de-prioritizing sleep can create or contribute to even more severe issues, particularly for your mental health. While consistently getting a good night’s sleep isn’t a cure-all, , it plays a huge role in our overall mental health management.

What contributes to our mental health?

To understand how sleep impacts our mental health, it’s important to understand what mental health is. Mental health is rooted in three core dimensions: emotional, psychological, and social well-being. That means having quality mental health is dependent on factors like:

  • biology and genetics
  • individual and shared life experiences
  • family history and relationships
  • socioeconomic status
  • social connections

All of the broad things that make us human and all of the specific things that make us our unique selves help shape our mental health, along with our ability to cope with stressors, adapt to change, build resilience, and develop emotional maturity. Sleep is an important part of being able to manage that complex web of factors, as it helps us regulate our emotions and gain or maintain the clarity we need to make sound decisions.

What causes poor mental health?

Mental health is influenced by internal and external forces. These can include chronic illnesses, poverty, work-related burnout, and life experiences of all kinds.

When our psychological wellbeing is compromised, we are more vulnerable to other issues, including anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, ADHD, and more. This can cascade into other symptoms that can include changes to:

  • motivation levels
  • mood
  • appetite
  • sleep
  • energy

How does sleep deprivation worsen mental health?

Sleep deprivation and poor-quality sleep are common in those experiencing mental distress. Mental illnesses can result in either an inability to sleep or a tendency to sleep too much. Insomnia is when a person has difficulty falling or staying asleep. For folks with anxiety or depression, it can be due to racing thoughts that interfere with their ability to fall asleep. Hypersomnia is the opposite, where one might sleep too much throughout the day. This is common in people who struggle with depression and lack either the energy or motivation to get out of bed or do productive tasks.

Though these issues exist at opposite ends of the sleep spectrum, both can cause drastic changes to mood and emotional health. If you’ve ever found yourself more short-tempered than normal after poor sleep, you’ll likely understand. And there’s a world of research that justifies those feelings. Even catching up on sleep debt can feel frustrating. The discomfort may be temporary and subside when you finally catch up on that sleep, but in some cases, depriving ourselves of quality rest can be a trigger for longer and more serious mental health episodes.

Additionally, on-going sleep deprivation lowers your stress tolerance and increases your risk of depression. Depression, which impacts roughly 16.1 million American adults, is the most common mental health disorder that disrupts sleep.

How good sleep benefits your mental health

While sleep deprivation and poor sleep habits wreak havoc on our mental health, getting adequate amounts of deep, restorative shut-eye can make our bodies and minds feel better. A few for getting better sleep at night include:

  • higher levels of creativity
  • an ability to identify and regulate emotions
  • increased mental health quality
  • better judgement and decision making

Our bodies are a complex collection of systems, rhythms, and hormones. Sleep in a critical process for keeping these systems in balance and when we’re not getting enough sleep, things start to fall out of balance. This includes surges of the stress hormone cortisol, which can impact mood and leave us prone to greater mental health challenges. Studies have shown that good sleep is an essential tool for managing mental health.

Five tips to get the best sleep to benefit your mental health

For many of us, just jumping in bed and hoping to fall asleep in a few minutes is not the most efficient or sustainable way of getting a good night’s sleep. This is especially true when your mental health is suffering or you’re dealing with a lot of stress.

However, maintaining a consistent bedtime routine can help keep you stabilized, energized, and better equipped to manage your moods. Plus, establishing a bedtime routine that brings you more peace and relaxation can turn sleep into something to look forward to. Here are some tips for using sleep to help combat poor mental health.

1. Stick to your set bedtime

The time that you get in bed matters, especially if you struggle with insomnia. Setting and sticking to a bedtime can be an essential part of protecting your mental health, as it signals to yourself and others that your wellbeing is a non-negotiable priority. It can also help ensure that you get the recommended amount of sleep for your age group, which can lead to more quality sleep and less social jetlag.

2. Get undistracted

Do you stay up watching Netflix? Are you scrolling on social media? Having late-night conversations that last past your bedtime? We all get seduced by distractions. But while some distractions can be healthy, some become revenge bedtime procrastination that can be detrimental to our wellbeing. Identifying and either eliminating or setting boundaries around the latter can be a helpful way to improve your sleep habits and reap the benefits of better rest.

Before bed, pay attention to the things that grab your attention and keep you awake at night, then begin the process of setting healthy boundaries with yourself. For example, consider placing your devices in a section of the room that isn’t easily reachable, or putting your phone on Do Not Disturb.

3. Practice nighttime relaxation techniques

When it’s time to go to bed, you want your body and mind to be in sync. But sometimes our bodies feel ready for bed while our minds are wired and ready for action. This can also occur when you struggle with depression and anxiety, since it can be easy to get distracted by negative thoughts during downtime, or to feel overstimulated from anxious symptoms. To calm your mind, consider engaging in relaxation techniques like yoga, meditation, or breath-work before bed.

If you struggle with anxiety, it can also be beneficial to shift your focus with five minutes of journaling before bed. Release negative thoughts by transferring them from your brain to a piece of paper, or court more positivity by making a list of 3-5 things you’re grateful for, no matter how large or small. Focusing on the positive aspects of life can create more space in your brain for relaxation, turning down the volume knob on thoughts of fear and tension.

4. Consider seeing a therapist and/or a psychiatrist

Because mental health conditions like depression, anxiety and bipolar disorder can be linked to sleep disturbances, it may be beneficial to seek professional help. A licensed therapist can use different modalities to get to the root of your sleep disturbances and provide a set of coping strategies that work best for you.

A psychiatrist will come in handy if you feel like you need additional assistance through medication. A psychiatrist plays a role in diagnosing mental health conditions, as well as providing pharmaceutical alternatives that may help you sleep better.

5. Have a plan if you don’t get good sleep

Sometimes knowing you need good sleep but not getting it can create more stress and anxiety. This then makes it even harder to fall asleep, or to get back to sleep if you awaken in the middle of the night. One way to relieve this anxiety from happening is by having a plan in place in case you do toss and turn. Whether it’s getting up and reading a boring book or practicing meditation, the key is to minimize frustration by getting yourself away from your bed, and giving yourself tools to solve the problem, so that it doesn’t heighten your stress.

Taking care of yourself also means knowing when it’s time to get rest and taking the steps needed to have a restore yourself. . Remember, you don't have to earn rest, you're already worthy of it. Getting sleep is important for your well-being.