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How Does Sleep Deprivation Affect Mental Health?

Published on December 19, 2019 by First Responder Wellness

For most people, even a small amount of sleep loss can have a huge impact on their mood and ability to focus throughout the day.  Some people, however, are subjected to more significant sleep deprivation, whether it be due to the demands of their job or a health condition like insomnia.  Sleep deprivation can present differently for different people. Some individuals may go an entire 24 hours without sleep a couple times a week, while others may begin losing increasingly more hours of sleep per night over an extended period of time.  Both of these scenarios can mean serious trouble for your mental health, and could also be a sign of a developing mental illness.

Sleep and the Brain

Sleep is a necessary bodily function, just as important as eating and breathing.  The process of sleep is highly complex and still not entirely understood, but modern science and technology has allowed researchers to take a better look at why we need sleep and what happens to our brains when we are asleep.  Humans experience two types of sleep during the average sleep session. The first is known as slow-wave sleep, or SWS, and is responsible for keeping us unconscious and immobile during most of the time we are sleeping. SWS sleep is thought to be mostly healing and reenergizing for our bodies, and is characterized by slow breathing and relaxed muscles.  

The second kind of sleep is called rapid eye movement, or REM.  This sleep is characterized by a highly active brain and, you guessed it, rapid eye movements.  During REM sleep, breathing and heartrate become erratic, and the brain begins to generate dreams.  While it is still not entirely understood what complex chemical processes happen in the brain during REM, it is believed that during this time the brain begins healing and recuperating as well, clearing unneeded cells to make room for new growth, and prepping you to perform cognitively the following day.

Your Brain on Sleep Deprivation

REM sleep may be responsible for maintaining memory function, focus, and emotional health.  When you lose sleep, whether it be an entire night’s worth or little bits here and there, you are depriving your brain of the necessary amount of REM sleep to regenerate and restore itself.  Sleep disruptions, such as constant waking throughout the night caused by anxiety or insomnia, have been shown to affect neurotransmitters and stress hormones that help regulate mood. This means that losing sleep can directly impact your ability to feel calm, happy, and motivated. 

Studies have shown that lack of sleep can worsen or even cause several mental health disorders including depression, anxiety, and panic disorder.  While sleep and mental health have a reciprocal relationship, it is clear that losing sleep is one of the worst things you can do when trying to maintain mental wellness.  Adopting healthy habits such as relaxation techniques and sleep hygiene practices can help improve sleep quality and consistency.  

Insomnia as a Symptom of Mental Illness

While sleep loss can contribute to poor mental health, an inability to sleep can also be a sign of a developing mental illness.  Depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and bipolar disorder have all been known to cause sleep issues. The connection between sleep issues and mental illness is so significant that some experts believe both types of problems may be share biological causations.  Sleep has been shown to impact the success rate for mental health treatment as well. For example, patients with depression who continue to report insomnia during treatment are less likely to exhibit positive results than those who don’t suffer from sleep issues.  

Additionally, a substance use disorder can develop in response to mental health issues and insomnia.  Many people begin drinking or taking drugs to induce drowsiness when they are unable to sleep. While this may serve as a temporary fix, substance use does far more harm than good.  Alcohol use, especially when used in excess, causes the drinker to fall into a deep, inactive sleep that does not include adequate amounts of REM. This means that even after eight hours of sleep or more under the influence of alcohol, you are likely to wake feeling groggy and unrested.  This is why many of the symptoms of substance abuse are similar to those of sleep deprivation, because essentially sleeping under the influence of drugs and alcohol is much like not sleeping at all.  

Individuals in high stress jobs such as first responders are at an increased risk of mental health disorders, sleep issues, and addiction.  These problems are very much interconnected, and it is important to seek treatment from a recovery program equipped to address co-occurring disorders. The First Responders Treatment Program at Simple Recovery uses trauma-informed strategies to cater to the unique needs of law enforcement, firefighters, paramedics, and other first responders with substance use disorders and co-occurring mental illnesses.  We recognize that first responders encounter job-specific barriers and obstacles that come with the culture of their careers, and that existing stigmas may make seeking help for addiction and mental health issues especially difficult. Addiction does not have to mean the end of your career or a lifetime of struggling with your health and relationships. By taking a holistic approach to treatment and addressing the underlying causes of addiction, Simple Recovery makes it possible for first responders to regain control of every aspect of their wellbeing.  First responders dedicate their lives to protecting their community, and at Simple Recovery’s First Responder Treatment Program, we believe in dedicating our time and expertise to helping these compassionate individuals find a path to lasting sobriety and mental wellness.

If you or someone you love is struggling with addiction, call us now at 888-743-0490.