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Mental Health Awareness Month: How Sleep Relates to Mental Health
In This Article
In this article
May 1st through May 31st is Mental Health Awareness Month. It’s a time to raise awareness of mental illness’s pervasiveness and fight the stigma around mental illness and seeking treatment. It’s also a reminder to slow down, self-assess your own mental health, and encourage your loved ones to do the same.
What does mental health have to do with sleep, and why is it so important to us at Nolah?
Sleep health and mental health are intrinsically linked. Sleep—or lack thereof—directly affects your mental well-being, and your mental state influences your ability to get the sleep you need.
At Nolah, we design mattresses and sleep accessories that eliminate the physical barriers to getting restorative rest. However, we understand that physical comfort is only one part of the equation.
To help everyone get better sleep, we hope to help spread the word about healthy habits and how to get professional mental health care if that’s what you need. This article explores how sleep and mental health are linked and what you can do to improve both.
Before delving further into this topic, let’s clarify a few key terms. Readers should understand the difference between mental health and mental illness and know that these terms are not interchangeable.
As explained by McLean Hospital, “Mental health reflects ‘our emotional, psychological, and social well-being.’ Affecting ‘how we think, feel, and act,’ mental health has a strong impact on the way we interact with others, handle problems, and make decisions.”
In other words, mental health is a state of being. You may not consciously monitor your mental health, but everyone experiences it all the time. Your mental health falls on a spectrum and changes over time.
Meanwhile, “Mental illness refers to ‘conditions that affect a person’s thinking, feeling, mood, or behavior.’ These can include but aren’t limited to depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, or schizophrenia.”
A Word on Mental Health Help
As you learn more about the link between mental health and sleep, bear in mind that mental health is malleable.
Some factors—like genetic predisposition to mental illness—are out of your control, but behavioral changes can also positively or negatively influence your mental health. There’s no quick fix for getting better sleep or transforming your mental health, but forging healthy habits can go a long way to improving physical and mental wellness.
That said, everyone is different and has unique mental health needs. There is absolutely no shame in seeking medical, psychological, or psychiatric care to meet those needs. At the end of this article, we’ve included a list of resources for anyone interested in professional mental health care services. You can also talk to your primary care physician about treatment options.
Please note that Nolah does not offer medical advice. All content on our site is for informational purposes only, not diagnosis or treatment. Our content and the practices discussed in this article are not a substitute for professional mental health care.
You can follow these links to learn more about the signs of mental illness and treatment options from the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). As stated by NAMI: If you or someone you know needs help now, you should immediately call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or call 911.
Lastly, readers should know that many mental health services, like psychotherapy, are not only for people with mental illness or poor mental health. Anyone can benefit from therapy and the wellness practices therapists teach their patients.
The Interconnected Relationship Between Mental Health and Sleep
Now, let’s dive into the intricacies of sleep health, mental health, and how they relate to one another.
How Mental Health Affects Sleep
Both your body and mind need sleep to keep you healthy. It’s essential to energy conservation, tissue growth, cell repair, immune health, cognition, emotional regulation, and more. However, getting the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommended seven hours of sleep each night is easier said than done.
Physical discomfort and external disturbances may keep you up at night from time to time, but more often than not, it’s your mind that prevents you from falling asleep and staying asleep.
When you experience stress or anxiety, your autonomic nervous system releases hormones, including cortisol and adrenaline, and your heart rate rises as your body prepares to act on the stressor.
This stress response interferes with your ability to fall asleep, as cortisol increases alertness, and your body can’t relax with an elevated heart rate. Anxiety and stress disturb the natural hormonal patterns of your circadian rhythms, keeping you from feeling tired even though it’s time for bed.
Unfortunately, it’s not just acute stress that prevents you from getting a good night’s rest. Chronic stress and anxiety disorders are closely tied to sleep disorders. According to the National Alliance On Mental Health, about 50 percent of insomnia cases relate to depression, anxiety, or psychological stress.
About 50 percent of insomnia cases relate to depression, anxiety, or psychological stress.
How Sleep Affects Mental Health
It’s a misconception that your brain “rests” while you sleep. You may not be conscious, but your brain is hard at work processing a day’s worth of information, consolidating memories, and clearing waste. Essentially, the brain performs housekeeping while you sleep.
When you don’t get enough sleep, sleep deprivation overworks your neurons and makes it difficult to learn, focus, access old information, and make sound decisions.
You also need sleep for healthy emotional regulation. Without it, your body and mind don’t respond appropriately to positive or negative stimuli during the day. According to research published in AIMS Neuroscience and the National Library of Medicine:
“Sleep loss and insomnia have been found to affect emotional reactivity and social function…Without enough healthy sleep, negative emotional reactivity seems to be significantly enhanced and positive reactions to positive events often subdued. A recent sleep deprivation study found that the response time for positive stimuli was faster than to negative and neutral stimuli, while accuracy in recognizing the valence of stimuli decreased after sleep deprivation.”
In other words, you need sleep to emotionally process the events of everyday life. Sleep deprivation can increase symptoms of irritability, depression, anxiety, paranoia, and feelings of confusion, frustration, and rage. When your mind and body are on edge, it influences how you respond to the circumstances and stimuli that make up your day-to-day life.
The Mental Health/Sleep Cycle
Sleep health and mental health are closely intertwined, reciprocally impacting one another. Lack of sleep detriments your mental health, while poor mental health and symptoms of mental illness make it harder to get quality rest. The complex relationship between sleep, emotional regulation, cognition, and hormonal maintenance creates a difficult cycle to intentionally alter.
Thinking about sleep and mental health as a cycle can be overwhelming, especially if you feel stuck in a rut of sleeplessness and distress. However, there is another side to this cycle.
Negative changes to your sleep health can have a negative effect on your mental health and vice versa, but the opposite is also true. Positive changes to your mental health can improve your sleep health, and better sleep health can lead to better mental health. If you make changes in one area, you’ll feel the benefits in the other.
Lifestyle Changes for Better Sleep and Mental Health
There’s no cure for mental illness or a one-size-fits-all methodology for transforming your mental health. However, there are ways to treat and manage symptoms or mediate the stressors that affect your mental well-being.
Improving your sleep and mental health takes time and strength, and depending on your unique needs, it may include a combination of therapy, medication, and lifestyle changes. It isn’t easy, but it’s an ongoing process, meaning there’s always time and room for growth.
Below, we’ve compiled a list of lifestyle changes and healthy habits that may help you manage sleep problems and improve your overall mental health. But remember, Nolah does not offer medical advice, and these practices are not a substitution for professional mental health care.
Establishing an exercise routine is a great way to embrace the mind-body connection and improve your sleep and mental health. According to Charlene Gamaldo, M.D., medical director of Johns Hopkins Center for Sleep:
“Moderate aerobic exercise increases the amount of slow wave sleep you get. Slow wave sleep refers to deep sleep, where the brain and body have a chance to rejuvenate. Exercise can also help to stabilize your mood and decompress the mind, ‘a cognitive process that is important for naturally transitioning to sleep.’”
Gamaldo also says that it won’t take long to reap the sleep benefits of exercise. If you engage in 30 minutes of moderate aerobic exercise, your sleep quality may improve that very night.
Studies also show that regular aerobic exercise can reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression. According to research published in Primary Care Companion to the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry and the National Library of Medicine, exercise benefits mental health by increasing blood circulation to the brain and influencing physiologic reactivity to stress. It also helps improve self-esteem and cognitive function.
Getting into the groove of regular exercise takes a lot of hard work and self-discipline. The trick is to set manageable standards, combining long-term goals with benchmark targets to measure your progress and motivate gradual increases in exercise intensity. The resources below can help you create and stick to an exercise plan that works for you.
How to Look After Your Mental Health Using Exercise, UK Mental Health Foundation
Fitness Program: 5 Steps to Get Started, Mayo Clinic
How to Start Working Out, The New York Times
Sticking With Your Exercise Program, Harvard Health Publishing
3 Ways to Make Your Exercise Habit Stick, Very Well Fit
A Balanced Diet
The field of nutritional psychiatry explores the connection between what you eat and how you feel. Nutritional psychiatry is a relatively new discipline, and currently, there isn’t enough evidence to identify an ideal diet for improving mental health. However, early research indicates that a balanced diet high in whole foods like fruits, vegetables, and unprocessed protein may help.
A healthy diet also affects your mental health and mood by fueling regular exercise and improving sleep quality. In this article, Sleep Foundation discusses the connection between diet, sleep, and exercise and how all three factors influence physical and mental health.
Eating healthy is easier said than done and requires both planning and impulse control. We recommend reading up on the science of a healthy, balanced diet so you can make educated choices about the foods you buy and eat. Below, you can find further reading on nutritional psychiatry and nutrition in general.
An Overview of Nutrition for a Better Diet, Very Well Fit
Healthy Living Guide 2021/2022, The Nutrition Source (Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health)
Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2020-2025, U.S. Government
Can What We Eat Affect How We Feel?, The New York Times
How Food May Improve Your Mood, The New York Times
Unfortunately, stress is unavoidable. Everyone has responsibilities and faces unexpected challenges outside of their control, and when stress accumulates, it can take its toll on your physical and mental health. You can’t eliminate stress altogether, but you can develop stress management strategies that help you navigate it and reduce the impact when it does arise.
Chronic stress isn’t itself a mental or physical illness, but it can increase the risks of heart disease, high blood pressure, obesity, weakened immunity, insomnia, depression, and anxiety. For better sleep and better mental health, you want to find ways to reduce and process the stress in your life.
In this article, Very Well Mind lists 17 short-term and long-term methods for stress relief, such as exercise, meditation, yoga, and socializing. We’ve compiled additional resources below that can help you learn these strategies and turn them into habits.
Exercise and Stress: Get Moving to Manage Stress, Mayo Clinic
Relaxation Techniques: Breath Control Helps Quell Errant Stress Response, The Nutrition Source (Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health)
The Great Outdoors
Every year, an estimated 5 percent of the U.S. population experiences seasonal affective disorder (SAD). SAD symptoms don’t always align with the fall and winter months, but if yours do, you’ll hopefully start to feel relief this time of year.
Everyone—not just individuals with SAD—can benefit physically and mentally from spending more time outside. For one, increased sun exposure can help regulate your circadian rhythms for better sleep. As explained by the CDC:
“The light/dark cycle of the sun has a powerful effect on the circadian clock, sleep, and alertness. If you understand these effects, you can manipulate light exposure to help yourself sleep better at night and be more alert during the day. Keep in mind your circadian clock uses light and dark signals to predict what to do in the future: when to prepare you to be active and when to prepare you to sleep.”
To help yourself feel awake and energized during the day, try to get plenty of natural light first thing in the morning. For example, you can make it a habit to eat your breakfast outside or do morning meditation in front of a large window. Morning sun exposure can also help you feel tired earlier in the evening, making it easier to keep a consistent sleep schedule.
Even if you live in an urban setting, getting outside and taking in some sun every day can make a world of difference for your mental health. The sources below can help you get creative and forge a habit of spending time in nature.
Mental Health Resources and Professional Help
Lifestyle changes can do wonders for your sleep health and mental health, but you may also need social support, therapy, medication, or other professional care to get where you want to be mentally and physically and to maintain that balance.
Remember, there is no shame in reaching out and getting the help you need. Mental health is health, and your mind deserves the same attention and care as your body.
Below, we’ve compiled a list of educational resources and practical guides to getting professional mental health help. Also, you can always contact your regular physician for more information or a referral to other healthcare professionals in your area.
General Mental Health Information and Education
Mental Health America (MHA)
For additional resources, see Mental Health First Aid’s Mental Health Resources list here
Mental Health Helplines
- In the case of an emergency, call 911
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255
Crisis Text Line: Text HOME to 741741
Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline: 1-800-662-HELP (4357)
How to Find Mental Health Professionals Near You
How Do I Find a Therapist?, Mental Health America
How Do I Find a Good Therapist?, American Psychological Association
Finding the Best Psychiatrist for You, National Alliance on Mental Illness
How to Find a Psychiatrist and Other Therapists, Healthline
How to Find a Therapist or Mental Health Provider, The New York Times
Disclaimer: Nolah does not provide medical advice. All resources on the Nolah blog, including this article, are informational only and do not replace professional medical counsel. Talk to your doctor about any health, mental health, or sleep-related issues.
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