Do you have trouble falling asleep or staying asleep? You may be one of the 50 million adults in the United States with a chronic sleep disorder. For healthy adults, the recommended amount of sleep is seven hours per night. But if you suffer from a sleep disorder, squeezing that many hours into a single night is a real challenge — but shouldn’t be ignored, because our body’s inability to rest could be linked to underlying mental health conditions. A lack of sleep only exacerbates mental health disorders like depression and anxiety, leading to a negative cycle between overwhelming feelings of hopelessness or stress, and restlessness.
So, what are sleep disorders, how can we manage mental health symptoms, and what can we do to achieve better sleep?
Common Sleep Disorders
In general, sleep disorders are characterized as chronic sleep conditions that impact your quality of life or ability to function. These include trouble falling or staying asleep, falling asleep at the wrong times, and abnormal sleep behaviors. According to the International Classification of Sleep Disorders (ICSD-3), the official description is a “curtailed sleep pattern that has persisted for at least three months for most days of the week, along with complaints of sleepiness during the day”.
The five most common are:
Insomnia. Characterized by the inability to initiate or maintain sleep, it may also take the form of very early morning awakening. Often causes excessive daytime sleepiness, which results in functional impairment throughout the day.
Narcolepsy. A neurological disorder that affects the brain’s ability to control sleep-wake cycles. People with narcolepsy may feel rested after waking, but then feel very sleepy throughout the day. They may fall asleep even in the middle of an activity.
Restless Legs Syndrome (RLS). Characterized by an unpleasant “creeping” sensation, originating in the lower legs, but often associated with overall leg pain. This sensation is seemingly only relieved by moving your legs, walking, or kicking - which of course, prevents sleep.
Sleep Apnea. People with sleep apnea often make periodic gasping or “snorting” noises while asleep, during which their sleep is momentarily interrupted. If you snore loudly and feel tired even after a full night's sleep, you may have sleep apnea.
REM Sleep Behavior Disorder (sometimes called Parasomnia). Characterized by abnormal sleep behaviors which manifest in vivid, often frightening dreams associated with movement during REM sleep, people with this kind of sleep disorder appear to “act out their dreams”. Common symptoms include: movement such as kicking, punching, or jumping from the bed in response to action-filled or violent dreams; making noises, such as talking, laughing, or shouting; and being able to recall dreams if you awaken during an episode.
The Link Between Sleep Disorders, Depression, & Anxiety
Scientists have found that 75% of individuals with depression experience sleep disturbances. And unfortunately, the relationship is bi-directional - meaning that not only does depression exacerbate sleep disorders like insomnia, but having a sleep disorder first can actually help bring on depression (if a person is already predisposed). And like the proverbial chicken and egg, often it’s hard to know which came first.
Researchers believe sleep problems may contribute to depression by way of abnormal changes in the functioning of the neurotransmitter serotonin, the key hormone that stabilizes our mood and provides feelings of well-being. They have found that not enough sleep impacts the way serotonin works, disrupting our circadian rhythms and increasing vulnerability to depression.
Sleep problems are also a common symptom of anxiety disorders. If you’ve had anxiety, you know that feeling of your brain “racing”, making it almost impossible to sleep. And even after falling asleep, you may wake up with anxiety in the middle of the night. Sleep disruption like this can lead to sleep fragmentation, which reduces both the quantity and quality of sleep.
Scientists say that individuals with anxiety disorders have high sleep reactivity - sleep reactivity being the degree to which stress disrupts sleep, manifesting as difficulty falling and staying asleep when a person is highly stressed. Compounding this is something called anticipatory anxiety, which is when individuals with anxiety know they’ll have problems falling asleep, and so their anxiety increases when they go to bed, causing sleeplessness, and ultimately a downward spiral of anxiety and lack of sleep.
There’s a clear link between sleep disorders, depression, and anxiety. As a result, taking steps to sleep better can have a significantly beneficial effect on quality of life, so it’s important to seek professional help if you’re experiencing sleep problems or think you recognize any of the symptoms discussed above. And fortunately, once diagnosed, sleep disorders are treatable.
Tips For Achieving Better Sleep
Persistent problems sleeping increase the risk of relapse for those who’ve been treated for depression or anxiety, but practicing healthy sleep habits can reduce those feelings and can have a beneficial effect on your overall mood.
Establish a sleep schedule. Creating a routine to sleep can help your brain get accustomed to getting the full amount of sleep. This means having a set wake-up time regardless of whether it is a weekday or weekend.
Follow a routine each night. Building a consistent routine such as washing your face and brushing your teeth can reinforce in your mind that it is time for bed.
Unplug from devices. Set a buffer to unwind without electronics that can cause mental stimulation. Making it harder to calm thoughts. The blue light emitted from these devices can also decrease melatonin production, taking longer for you to achieve REM.
Don’t force it. If you’re still tossing and turning after 20-minutes, consider getting up and stretching, reading a book, or doing something that calms you using soft lights before returning to bed to try again. This will help build a healthier mental connection between being in bed and falling asleep.
Diagnosis & Treatment In Conjunction With Mental Health Issues
In order to diagnose a sleep disorder, a doctor or mental health professional will gather information about your symptoms, as well as medical and mental health history. They may also order tests, such as a daytime or overnight sleep study to determine a diagnosis. Because of the multifaceted relationship between mental health and sleep, it is common for treatment to include both cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and prescription medication. With proper treatment underlying causes of disruption can be addressed; allowing you to achieve better quality sleep.
Consider Telebehavioral Health
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