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5 Mental Health Risks of Chronic Sleep Deprivation

Consistently poor sleep patterns can have serious effects on well-being.

Key points

  • Poor sleep can have a significant effect on mental and physical well-being and research suggests that for many, sleep quality has declined.
  • Sleep deprivation mimics some symptoms of ADHD, and can put people at higher risk for dementia.
  • Chronic lack of sleep also increases one's risk for depression, anxiety, and makes it harder to overcome stress.

Sleep: We all need it on a daily basis, but, like eating habits and exercise, there are tremendously wide variations in our habits. And while most of us know that poor sleep is not good for our bodies or brains, many people have an easier time justifying their lack of sleep than they would eating a non-nutritious diet or refusing ever to move their body. In busy times, sleep is often the first thing to go, and high achievers may occasionally even view it as a badge of honor to pull an all-nighter when they are wrapped up in hard work.

Moreover, the quality of our sleep seems to be suffering as of late, potentially because smartphone use before bed makes it harder for our bodies to get into the relaxation state they need in order to achieve restful sleep. Plus, more people are reporting sleep disturbances since the coronavirus pandemic began. The relationship between sleep and well-being is often a two-way street: Poor sleep makes us feel worse, and feeling worse affects our sleep quality, trapping us in a cycle that can be hard to escape. The bottom line is clear: Sleep needs to be prioritized, and when there are consistent issues, it's worth talking to a specialist. Left unaddressed, here are five specific ways that your mental health could be in jeopardy.

  1. Chronic sleep deprivation can mimic the effects of ADHD. Research suggests that ADHD symptomology and sleep disruption can be intimately intertwined. It is easy to see how the same classic symptoms of a poor night of sleep—difficulty concentrating, scattered thoughts, forgetfulness, and irritability—look eerily similar to ADHD. In fact, some kids' ADHD symptomology may not actually be ADHD at all, but rather a sign of chronic sleep deprivation, whether due to a disorder like sleep apnea or more from lifestyle factors.
  2. Chronic sleep deprivation makes you hypersensitive to threat—and more likely to be anxious. Not only might we not think as clearly when we are sleep-deprived, we likely think differently: specifically, we may find situations more threatening than we would if we were not sleep-deprived. This could be an evolutionary adaptation. Back when humans dwelled in caves, being sleep-deprived posed a serious threat to safety: You could not outrun a predator as quickly, and may even doze off in a vulnerable position. Our brains may have learned to overcompensate for this by viewing everything as more threatening. Of course, in the modern day, this often does more harm than good—as being hypersensitive to threat is less likely to keep us alive and more likely to make us anxious and miserable.
  3. Chronic sleep deprivation raises your vulnerability to depression. It is no surprise that sleep quality and depression are related. Many depressed individuals have disrupted sleep as a result of their depression, and in fact it can be seen as a symptom. But it also appears that things can work in the other direction as well, with chronic sleep disruption and deprivation playing a role in the onset of depression. Much like going without adequate nutrients, going without proper sleep is a direct route to lessening our brain function on both a short-term and potentially long-term basis-- and mood regulation is one of our brain's most important functions.
  4. Chronic sleep deprivation puts you at higher risk for dementia. As the demographic bubble of the Baby Boomers hits the age when neurocognitive disorders like Alzheimer's Disease and other types of dementia are more likely, much attention is being given to what risk factors exist for cognitive decline. An important one is sleep. It's uncomfortable to imagine that patterns of poor quality sleep in middle age can have negative effects on our brain's ability to work well decades later, but the evidence is mounting. Sleep itself likely plays an important role in the process of memory consolidation, lending further explanations for why its disruption can be so damaging for cognitive functioning.
  5. Chronic sleep deprivation makes it harder to overcome stress, and more likely that you will feel stressed in the first place. Research has made clear that the stress-sleep relationship is an important one, with major ramifications for mental and physical health. The effects are bi-directional: Stressful events in our lives make it harder to get adequate sleep—whether because our bodies and minds can't calm down, or the tasks we have to take on when life gets complicated make prioritizing sleep even more difficult than normal, or both. And in turn, when we don't get adequate sleep, our bodies have fewer opportunities to rest and come down off of the heightened state of arousal that stressful times bring. It's easy to see how this cycle can lead to long-term exhaustion and burnout.