Good sleep is essential for our mental well-being. Just one night of disturbed sleep can leave us feeling cranky, flat, worried, or sad the next day. So it’s no surprise sleeping problems, likedifficulty falling asleep,not getting enough sleep, or regularly disrupted sleep patterns, are associated with anxiety and depression.
Anxiety and depression, which can range from persistent worry and sadness to a diagnosed mental illness, are common and harmful.
Understanding the many interacting factors likely to cause and maintain these experiences is important, especially for developing effective prevention and treatment interventions. And there isgrowing recognitionsleep problems may be a key factor.
Which problem comes first?
Most evidence suggests the relationship between sleep problems and anxiety and depression is strong and goes both ways.
This means sleep problems can lead to anxiety and depression, and vice versa. For example, worrying and feeling tense during bedtime can make it difficult to fall asleep, but having trouble falling asleep, and in turn not getting enough sleep, can also result in more anxiety.
Trying to tease apart which problem comes first, in whom, and under what circumstances, is difficult. It may depend on when in life the problems occur. Emerging evidence shows sleep problems in adolescence mightpredict depression(and not the other way around). However, this pattern is not as strong in adults.
The specific type of sleep problem occurring may be of importance. For example, anxiety but not depressionhas been shownto predict excessive daytime sleepiness. Depression and anxiety also commonly occur together, which complicates the relationship.
Although the exact mechanisms that govern the sleep, anxiety and depression link are unclear, there is overlap in some of the underlying processes that are more generally related tosleep and emotions.
Some aspects of sleep, like thevariabilityof a person’s sleep patterns and their impact on functioning and health, are still relatively unexplored. More research could help further our understanding of these mechanisms.
So there is the possibility that targeting sleep problems in people who are at risk of experiencing them – like teenagers, new mothers and people at risk for anxiety – will not only improve sleep but also lower their risk of developing anxiety and depression.
Online interventions have the potential to increase cost-effectiveness and accessibility of sleep programs.One study found asix-week online CBT-I programsignificantly improved both insomnia and depression symptoms. The program included sleep education and improving sleep thoughts and behaviours, and participants kept sleep diaries so they could receive feedback specific to their sleep patterns.
General improvements to sleep might be beneficial for a person with anxiety, depression, or both. Targeting one or more features common to two or more mental disorders, likesleep disturbance, is known as a“transdiagnostic”approach.
For many people, treating sleep problems before treating symptoms of anxiety and depression is less stigmatising and might encourage people to seek further help. Addressing sleep first can develop a good foundation for further treatment.
For example, people with a depressive disorder areless likely to respondto treatment and more likely torelapseif they have a sleep problem like insomnia.
Many of the skills learned in a sleep intervention, such as techniques for relaxation and reducing worry, can also be used to help with daytime symptoms of both anxiety and depression. And this is not to mention thephysical benefitsof getting a good night’s sleep!
If you’re concerned about your sleepor mental health, speak to a health care professional such as your GP. There are already a number of effective treatments for sleeping problems, depression and anxiety, and when one is treated, the other is likely to improve.
And with research in this area expanding, it’s only a matter of time before we find more ways to use sleep improvement interventions as a key tool to enhance our mental health.
Professor Emeritus John Trinder contributed to this article.