For many Americans, a good night sleep can be hard to come by. But if you suffer from some of the most common mental health conditions, the likelihood that you also experience difficulties with sleep is significantly higher. According to Harvard Health Publications, between 50 and 80% of those seeking help from psychiatrists or therapists also have chronic sleep problems. If you consider that less than 20% of the general population experience chronic problems with sleep, it is easy to see that for many people, sleep and mental health go hand in hand.
In the past, most clinicians assumed that when people with mental health conditions like anxiety and depression had difficulty sleeping it was a symptom of the underlying mental health problem. However, in recent years, the science of sleep has turned this assumption around, showing that in some cases the person’s struggle with sleep is actually the underlying condition and can increase the risk of developing a mental health condition and may even be a contributing factor. Understanding the relationship between sleep and mental health, and how the two play off of one another, is crucial to identifying and recommending the best possible treatment options.
Although there are many mental health conditions that can cause sleep disruption, four of the most common conditions seem to have this tight-knit relationship with sleep. In these mental health conditions, depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, and attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), chronic sleep problems seem to have a bigger role. These are the conditions where the not getting enough sleep may be as much factor as symptom.
This close relationship means that it is critical for any treatment plan designed to address one of these mental health conditions where chronic insomnia is also present to also include a plan for treating the sleep disruption. Since lack of sleep and chronic insomnia can worsen the symptoms of these conditions and interfere with other treatments, prolonging the condition itself, sleep must be treated as a core component of the condition.
To understand why sleep and mental health are so intertwined, it is beneficial to look at some of the things that are happening while we sleep. Scientists know that during REM sleep, the deepest of the stages, changes to brain chemistry affect how our memory works, how we learn, and the stability of our emotions. While much more research is needed in order to understand what exactly is happening during sleep, we also know that when sleep is disrupted it alters brain chemistry. The levels of neurotransmitters and hormones are altered in ways that can impair thought and disrupt the ability to control emotions. These changes that have been linked to sleep disruption may explain the link between these kinds of mental health conditions and chronic insomnia and provide an idea of how each condition can contribute to and even be a factor in causing the other.
The best options for treating chronic insomnia in people with these mental health conditions are the same as those used to treat insomnia in others including good sleep hygiene, lifestyle modifications, relaxation techniques, and medication.
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