Symptom or Cause?
When patients come to see me seeking help for depression, anxiety, trauma or chronic stress one of the very first questions I ask is, “How well do you sleep?” Issues with sleep, such as sleep deprivation, disruption, or insomnia have long been considered a symptom of mental health disorders, such as depression and anxiety. But until recently there has been very little research on sleep deprivation as a cause of mental health disorders.
Sleep Difficulties are a Driving Factor in Depression and Anxiety
A study conducted at the Sleep and Circadian Neuroscience Institute at Oxford University found that sleep difficulties (such as sleep deprivation and insomnia) are a driving factor in depression, anxiety and other mental health disorders in young adults. This groundbreaking study was the first study large enough (3,755 participants) to determine the impact of treating insomnia on mental health disorders such as depression, anxiety, paranoia and hallucinatory experiences. The study found that participants who received sleep treatment showed large reductions in insomnia, as well as improvements in depression, anxiety and overall psychological well-being.
A Good Night’s Sleep Really Can Make a Difference
Daniel Freeman, the study lead and Professor of Clinical Psychology at the University of Oxford and Oxford Health NHS Foundation Trust, said:
“Sleep problems are very common in people with mental health disorders, but for too long insomnia has been trivialised as merely a symptom, rather than a cause, of psychological difficulties. This study turns that old idea on its head, showing that insomnia may actually be a contributory cause of mental health problems. A good night’s sleep really can make a difference to people’s psychological health. Helping people get better sleep could be an important first step in tackling many psychological and emotional problems.”
What strikes me the most about this study is that the “sleep treatment” was an educational online program that taught participants various ways in which to improve their sleep! This is amazing and inspirational, as all of us can improve our sleep, and thus our mental health, by adhering to some fundamental principles regarding how to sleep better. My next post will explore various ways in which you can improve your sleep, including how to put together a pro-sleep environment and how to use light to create and sustain healthy circadian rhythms.