Jul 28, 2021

Lack of Sleep Effects on Mental Health: A Vicious Cycle

Do you enjoy sleep, or is the task of sleep daunting from insomnia-related issues? Lack of sleep effects is no fun and some people that I’ve spoken to...

Do you enjoy sleep, or is the task of sleep daunting from insomnia-related issues? Lack of sleep effects is no fun and some people that I’ve spoken to insist that sleep is an evolutionary disadvantage. As true as this may be, there’s nothing sweeter than a full night’s rest and sleeping in on a Saturday morning. And as great as sleep feels, the health benefits that accompany it are even sweeter. 

There are a myriad of benefits that sleep has on our health, and conversely, there are a myriad of issues that can arise if we don’t get enough sleep. Not getting enough sleep can be caused by difficulties falling asleep or difficulty staying asleep. Some may find it easy to fall asleep but struggle to stay asleep, and others may struggle with falling asleep, but staying asleep is easy.

Those who are incredibly unfortunate may struggle with falling asleep and staying asleep. Research has found that a lack of sleep can cause an onset of mental illness. The CDC recommends that the average adult gets 7-9 hours of sleep each night. Recently, research has also found that lack of sleep effects can also maintain mental illness that had a different reason for onset. More specifically, lack of sleep is linked to increased stress and depression. Stress is an underlying mechanism for many health issues; thus, clinicians and physicians work towards mitigating stress as a primary goal when working with patients. 

The proposed cycle for mental health and sleep is as follows: sleep deficiency → , excessive tiredness during the day, → cognitive deficiencies such as lack of concentration and lack of emotional regulation, → less resilience against stressors → increased feelings of stress → sleep deficiency. And the cycle continues. A metaphorical question arises from this cycle –what came first, the chicken or the egg? Researchers have studied mental health effects when there are sleep disturbances present and vice versa, but it’s challenging to pinpoint which causes the cycle. 

lack of sleep effects cycle

There are many evidence-based treatment options for mental health concerns, and many choose to seek out clinicians to treat clinical levels of anxiety. However, working on sleep improvement is another option to help combat increased levels of anxiety. As demonstrated in the cycle, the link between increased stress and sleep deficiency can be continuous, leading to more severe physical and/or mental health disturbance. 

We’ve written a few times about mitigating sleep issues, and we encourage you to check them out here and here. As a brief recap, we encourage making improvements to your sleep environment, using behavior modification techniques to train your brain to sleep, and of course, trying a weighted blanket. Clinicians and physicians may also have recommendations on mitigating sleep disturbances that you can try, so speaking to your provider can result in more interventions.

Lack of Sleep Effects on Mental Health: The Culprit

You may be wondering why sleep is so vital to mental health; well, there are a variety of possible reasons that researchers are actively exploring. During sleep, our brains process information from the day, including thoughts and memories. Lack of sleep has been linked to a reduction in the processing of positive emotional memories. When positive memories are not consolidated or transferred into our long-term memory, we are left with increased susceptibility to negative emotions.

Additionally, when we don’t get enough sleep, we face hormone imbalances that directly impact our mood amongst other bodily processes. When we don’t get enough sleep, the communication channels between our brain and its messengers cause hormones to mis-perform, impacting mental health. A specific hormone that’s impacted is cortisol, which plays a role in our “fight or flight” response. When we don’t get enough sleep, our body overproduces cortisol which causes increased stress responses, and it’s well known that stress has a myriad of effects on the body and is a root cause of mental illness. 

If it isn’t abundantly clear, sleep is important and everyone should take steps to ensure that they are getting an adequate amount. Luckily there are multiple resources available to help promote quantity and quality sleep. We encourage you to try out interventions to help promote better sleep because the lack of sleep effects are real and can cause serious impacts on mental health.


Veronica is a mental health professional who is pursuing a doctorate in Clinical Psychology. She has earned her master’s degree in Clinical Mental Health Counseling and now provides therapy to children and youth in the community agency setting. She has been a part of several studies withiфn the field of psychology, including cognitive psychology, sports psychology, and health psychology. Her current research interests revolve around utilizing mindfulness meditation techniques and how they can impact the health of individuals in various socio-economic settings. She also has research interests revolving around developing and implementing interventions to aid in recovery from substance abuse within the primary care setting.

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