Sleep is essential to both your physical and mental health. Lack of sleep can cause daytime drowsiness, difficulty concentrating, and forgetfulness. But the long-term psychological effects of sleep deprivation are far more serious.
Most adults need seven to nine hours of uninterrupted sleep per night. Many people are scraping by with as little as three or four hours because insomnia makes it difficult for them to fall and stay asleep.
Insomnia can severely disrupt your brain’s productivity. It can negatively affect your mood, energy levels, and ability to concentrate.
Insomnia also can increase stress, which heightens your risk of serious problems, such as depression and anxiety.
Insomnia is sometimes the first sign of an existing or developing mental illness. It can signal a major depressive disorder, an anxiety disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Prolonged sleep deprivation also can worsen an existing disorder.
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Sleep Deprivation, Anger, and Emotional Instability
The psychological effects of sleep deprivation are extensive. They can take a real toll on your quality of life.
Lack of sleep and emotional instability
In addition to its role in anxiety and depression, lack of sleep can lead to moodiness, agitation, and irritability. Sleep deprivation and anger are closely associated. Many people feel low, unenthusiastic, and unmotivated when they don’t get enough sleep.
Lack of sleep and your thought process
Sleep deprivation makes it more difficult to think and concentrate. People who don’t get enough sleep are more likely to become forgetful and have trouble making decisions. They may be less productive at work or school. Slower reaction times can impact coordination and increase the risk of accidents.
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Sleep Deprivation and Anxiety
Anxiety disorders are the most common form of mental illness in the United States, affecting almost one in five adults.
More than half of all people with generalized anxiety disorder struggle with insomnia. It is also common in people with obsessive compulsive disorder, PTSD, and phobias.
The symptoms of insomnia and anxiety are intertwined.
Generalized anxiety disorder causes an excessive amount of unreasonable worry. People with this disorder often have trouble falling asleep because they are unable to settle their racing minds.
Insomnia can also intensify the symptoms of some anxiety-type disorders. For example, trouble sleeping can become a source of anxiety. Worrying about not getting enough sleep can actually prevent people from sleeping.
Sleep problems can even interfere with mental health treatment. People with PTSD often have terrible nightmares in which they re-experience traumatic events.
Sleep Deprivation and Depression
Between 65 to 90% of people with depression experience difficulty sleeping. Most have insomnia, but they may also have obstructive sleep apnea — a breathing condition that causes people to wake repeatedly throughout the night. It is common among people with depression.
Sleep deprivation complicates depression in a variety of ways.
Studies have found that depressed patients with insomnia do not respond as well to treatment as depressed patients without insomnia. They also have a higher risk of relapse than people with no sleep problems.
Depressed patients with insomnia also have a higher risk of suicidal thoughts or actions than patients who sleep normally.
Additionally, while depression can lead to insomnia, insomnia also can lead to depression.
Studies conducted over many years have found that adults with a history of insomnia are more likely to develop major depression. This also holds true for adolescents.
A 2014 study of more than 3,000 adolescents found that those getting less than six hours of sleep per night had a greater chance of developing depression.
Despite associations between sleep deprivation and depression, there is no evidence to suggest that insomnia directly causes depression.
About Wake Therapy
Although it defies common sense, researchers found that intentional sleep deprivation can temporarily improve the symptoms of severe depression. Known as wake therapy, this treatment is helpful in cases of suicidal thoughts or behaviors.
Unlike other depression treatments, wake therapy is effective after just one night with little to no sleep.
This therapy should only be used as part of a multi-pronged approach to depression management. It is not intended to produce lasting symptom relief.
For more information, call UPMC Western Psychiatric Hospital at 1-877-624-4100 or 412-624-1000.
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Harvard Health Publishing. Sleep and mental health. 2018.
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Office on Women's Health. Anxiety disorders. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
Nutt, D., et al. Sleep disorders as core symptoms of depression. Dialogues in clinical neuroscience, 2008.
Pigeon, WR., et al. Meta-analysis of sleep disturbance and suicidal thoughts and behaviors. J Clin Psychiatry, 2012.
Sleep Foundation. How much sleep do we really need?
Sleep Foundation. The complex relationship between sleep, depression & anxiety.
Roberts, R., et al. The prospective association between sleep deprivation and depression among adolescents. Sleep, 2014.
UPMC Western Psychiatric Hospital is a nationally recognized leader in mental health clinical care, research, and education. It is one of the nation’s foremost university-based psychiatric care facilities through its integration with the Department of Psychiatry of the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. UPMC Western Psychiatric is the hub of UPMC Western Behavioral Health, a network of nearly 60 community-based programs providing specialized mental health and addiction care for children, adolescents, adults, and seniors throughout western Pennsylvania.