If you’ve ever had a poor night’s sleep or had to pull an all-nighter, you’ll know perfectly well how much of an impact sleep, or lack thereof, has on your mood and outlook. 

When you wake after a bad night in lullaby land, you’re groggy, grumpy, and generally in a bad way mentally. That’s because your brain didn’t get the right amount of rest. And if your brain doesn’t get rest and relaxation, the rest of your body doesn’t either.

One of the worst things about having issues with your sleep is the fact that you tend to get increasingly anxious the more you miss out on sleep. This anxiety often makes your sleep problems worse which causes you to worry more. 

This never-ending, self-sustaining cycle is hugely unpleasant as it pits your mind against your body. The only way to break free of the cycle is to calm your mind enough to get some sleep. 

While sleep can’t fix every problem, it can certainly help you have a healthier and happier outlook on the issues you are facing. 

Let’s take a closer look at how sleep affects your mental health. 

1. Memory and Learning

Any student knows all too well how much harder it is to learn and process information when they’re tired. 

That’s because your brain finds it more difficult to absorb and process new learning when it’s already tired.

Think of it like an old laptop. If you run it for too long without rest it starts to slow down and seize up. 

Sleep is also crucial for the processing and consolidation of learning. Again, it’s a bit like an old laptop. It needs to save the work you’ve done but if you never hit the save button, then your work will be lost. 

While you sleep, your brain busies itself with committing what you’ve learned to memory. Scientists believe that this proves only occurs during REM sleep. If you don’t get adequate sleep, the information can be lost.

2. Emotional Processing

REM sleep is perhaps the most important part of sleep. It’s during this phase that your brain consolidates, processes, and commits the important parts of your day to memory. This includes processing the emotional aspects of your day.

Getting a good night’s sleep allows your brain to evaluate your thoughts and memories and store them appropriately. Research has shown that lack of sleep interrupts this process and can prevent positive thoughts and feelings from being stored.

Without positive memories to draw from, your outlook can very quickly become low and depressive. In fact, lack of sleep and the subsequent erasure of positive emotional memories can lead to an increased risk of suicide.

3. Impact on Existing Conditions

1 in 4 people will experience problems with their mental health at some point in their lives. That’s a quarter of the people in the world.

For people with a mental illness, good quality sleep is crucial to managing their condition. This is because a lack of sleep can exacerbate pre-existing conditions.

However, insomnia is a common symptom of many mental illnesses including depression, anxiety, and ADHD. This means that it can be difficult for suffers to get enough sleep to help with their other symptoms.

People who suffer from a mental illness use up more energy coping with the emotional strain of their illness than neurotypical people. This is because very often their emotions are more intense and more draining.

Surprisingly, some experts believe that the majority of your body’s energy is spent dealing with emotions rather than physical exertion.

If you’re tired your energy tank is already lower than normal. You then have to spend your sparse energy coping with emotional distress or other emotions. Unfortunately, because you didn’t get enough sleep your emotions are likely more extreme than normal which means you’d require more energy to cope with them. Energy you simply don’t have.

When you do get a good night’s sleep, your energy tank is fuller meaning you have more fuel to manage the symptoms of your condition.

Energy management when you have a chronic illness, mental or physical, is often explained using the spoon theory. You can read about it here. In essence, it is a way of explaining the way many people need to ration their energy to be able to cope with the demands of the day.

4. Mood

When we lose sleep, we tend to become grumpier, angrier, more frustrated. This is in part because of the suppression of negative memories that we discussed earlier. But it’s also to do with our fight or flight response.

The fight or flight area of our brain is called the limbic system. Its job is to evaluate situations and launch a flight or fight response in appropriate situations.

When the limbic system isn’t receiving as much useful information from other parts of the body it goes into overdrive mode. Small irritations begin to illicit large, primal responses like anger or aggression.

The reason the limbic system isn’t getting the correct information is because the other systems are working on limited power. 

Getting Better Sleep

Sleep has a huge amount of impact on our mental health and wellbeing. As such, our sleep health should be one of our top priorities.

As we’ve mentioned earlier, sleep issues can be both a symptom and a contributing factor to a number of different mental illnesses. While you might struggle to sleep, you should try your best to create the optimum sleep conditions.

Here is a list of things you might try to improve your sleep.

Keep your bedroom as dark as possible.
Try a better pillow or mattress.
Avoid screens before bed.
Try some breathing or relaxation exercises in bed.
Avoid caffeine after midday.
Try to reduce your sleep anxiety. In other words, don’t count how long you’ve been up or how little sleep you’re going to get.
Do some gentle exercise a few hours before sleep.

Final Thoughts

Many people have a difficult, even turbulent relationship with sleep. However, as sleep is so interconnected with our mental health and wellbeing, we need to take the time to repair that relationship.

Good quality sleep can literally change your outlook on life. It can give you the emotional strength and capacity to deal with your more difficult days.