By Lissa Coffey – Better Sleep Council Spokeswoman

Sleeplessness can harm relationships and cause depression, anxiety and problems with attention. Here’s how rest can come to your emotional rescue.

Ever have one of those days? When you are out of sorts and easily irritated, when nothing seems to be working and everything takes a lot of effort? We’ve all been there. And although we tend to blame the traffic, our co-workers or the weather, chances are the real culprit is lack of sleep.

Sleep research shows there is a correlation between being sleep deprived and feeling angry, hostile and irritable. In addition, chronic sleeplessness is associated with depression and anxiety.

When it comes to emotions, sleep deprivation can cause increased emotional reactivity. People who experience sleep loss are more likely to have a negative reaction when things don’t go well for them. Why? It involves a part of the brain known as the amygdala, which processes negative emotions. When we don’t receive enough sleep, there’s a disconnect between the amygdala and the area of the brain that regulates its functions. So, sleep loss affects us in two ways. We are more likely to experience negative emotions (or worse than usual negative moods), and we have less ability to regulate those moods.

A lack of sleep also affects our positive moods, making them less positive. Without adequate sleep, we feel less happy, friendly and compassionate. Even when something great happens to us (for example we win an award), we don’t experience it as positively as we would have if we were well-rested. Even losing one hour of sleep could cause us to feel nervous, hopeless or restless.

In addition, prolonged sleep deprivation can exacerbate emotional problems, and the risk of developing emotional disorders such as depression and anxiety increases. Over time, lack of sleep can impair memory, cause us to exercise less and eat less healthfully. We tend to be less likely to participate in social or leisure activities when we suffer from sleepiness. Chronic sleep disturbance affects our relationships and work life. In terms of emotions, those few bad days of bad moods can end up turning into weeks as we fall into the habitual sleep loss. A 1997 study found that insomnia, defined as habitual sleeplessness, or the inability to sleep, increases the risk of a person developing symptoms of depression by more than tenfold.

The good news

On the brighter side, a good night’s sleep can restore these brain connections so the next day we can do better and be better, both socially and emotionally. And, of course, it follows that adequate, quality sleep promotes positive moods and a sense of well-being.

By understanding this, we can avoid taking on big challenges or confrontations on those days when we haven’t had enough sleep the night before and avoid possible conflicts and disappointments. We also can wait until days we’ve slept well the night before to celebrate our accomplishments, so that we can enjoy the moment that much more. This understanding also helps us to be more patient with our friends, neighbours and co-workers, and maybe not take it too personally when they snap at us for seemingly no reason.

Recognizing the signs

If you’ve been sleeping poorly or feeling depressed for four weeks or more, it’s important to address the problem. Experts say that one of the first signs of depression is difficulty sleeping. Lack of sleep and depression often go hand in hand, and it can be difficult to determine which came first. Many people who don’t sleep enough are depressed, and many who are depressed don’t sleep well. The same holds true for anxiety, which makes it hard to fall asleep. Anxiety also makes it difficult to fall back to sleep when you wake up in the middle of the night. Stress affects you in the same way. It makes the body alert and aroused, in the fight or flight mode, so you can’t relax enough to sleep. Depression and anxiety cause us to wake up more often in the night, which means we miss out on the vital deep sleep that the mind and body need to function optimally.

Another sleep issue that comes with depression is hypersomnia or excessive daytime sleepiness. In other words, you sleep too much and have trouble staying awake. People with hypersomnia feel abnormally sleepy even when they have had adequate sleep. As many as 40% of adults with depression struggle with this.

Remedies to consider

Treating a sleep issue often reduces the symptoms of depression and anxiety. When we sleep well, we feel good. Good sleep helps us to be happier by nurturing our mental and emotional resilience. Sleep also contributes to a robust immune system, which helps the body stay healthy.

As you can see, mental health and sleep are connected intricately. Help yourself maintain emotional health by following the guidelines the Better Sleep Council recommends for a good night’s sleep, including:

  • Make your bedroom a sleep sanctuary. Keep electronics out, keep the room dark and cool, and invest in a comfortable supportive mattress.
  • Get some exercise and sunshine daily.
  • Go to bed by 10 p.m. and avoid screen time an hour before bed.

There are more great sleep tips and articles on the BetterSleep.org website.