Snooze through the Blues

Julianna Photopoulos explores the relationship between Sleep and Mental health as part of our Science of Sleep blog series.

This year hasn’t been going quite how we expected.  Whilst we get to grips with the new concepts of social distancing and self isolating we face new challenges for our mental health.  The daily exercise, DIY  and gardening will help.  But sleep can also play a vital role for our wellbeing as we adapt to our new routines.

Sleep is vital for our health and wellbeing, both physically and mentally2. After a sleepless night, you may have found yourself to be more irritable, short-tempered, and stressed. That’s because poor sleep is known to affect our mood3.

Research suggests that even a single night of sleeplessness can make us experience more negative emotions4, overreact and become impulsive to unpleasant or negative situations5. Our lifestyles can impact our sleeping patterns, and new parents, commuters, shift workers and young people have it harder than the rest of us6. A Canadian study found that long term commuters end up sacrificing their sleeping time, risking their mental and physical wellbeing7.

“Sleep is emotional first-aid. Bottom line, period.”

Matthew Walker

According to the Great British Sleep Survey8, almost four in five long-term, sleep-deprived people suffer from low moods and are seven times more likely to feel helpless9. A one-week study found that people who only slept 4-5 hours a night felt more stressed, angry, sad, and mentally exhausted. Their mood improved significantly when they went back to normal sleeping10 11.

“Sleep is emotional first-aid. Bottom line, period.” sleep expert Dr Matthew Walker has said12. Sleep is important in regulating our emotions, even in children and adolescents13. In a study, sleep-deprived and well-rested 8-11-year-olds reported their emotional response after being shown negative and neutral pictures. Those who had slept were able to control their emotional responses better than those who hadn’t14. Another study found high school students were at higher risk of self-harm and suicide when they got less than eight hours of sleep.15

boy looking through rainy window


Photo by Jeremy Weber on Unsplash

Chronic lack of sleep can lead to more serious health problems, such as clinical depression and anxiety, heart disease and cancer, obesity16, and memory issues17 18. For instance, people suffering from insomnia were five times more likely to develop depression and 20 times more likely to develop panic disorder19. Poor sleep has also been associated with an increased risk of suicide20 21. In addition, people with mental conditions are also likely to have sleep disorders. Studies estimate 65-90% of adults and 90% of children, all suffering from depression, have trouble sleeping22.

So why does this happen? Researchers are still picking apart all the mechanisms, but so far they’ve discovered that REM sleep, known to enhance learning and memory, resets the emotional networks in our brain. When we don’t get enough sleep, the parts of our brains involved in emotional regulation, such as the prefrontal cortex and the amygdala, are unable to do their job properly23 24 25. This causes depression, anxiety26, uncontrolled emotions27, and mood swings28

Research suggests early risers or larks are less likely to develop mental health issues compared to their late-night counterparts known as night owls29. Being programmed to wake up early has been linked to happiness and a lower risk of schizophrenia and depression. Night owls, on the other hand, have to fight against their natural body clock – due to school or work – which can take a toll on their mental health30. But not to worry, night owls can easily tweak their sleep and boost their wellbeing31 32. Find out more about Chronotypes in our 3 part blog series.


Photo by Matthew Henry on Unsplash

And not only does sleep affect our emotional wellbeing, it also interferes with our relationships. Studies suggest that sleeplessness leads to more, worse and often unresolved fighting between couples33, and diminishes our gratitude towards significant others34 and our general capacity for empathy35.

Given how important sleep is to our health and wellbeing, experts would like to see social change, where people have the opportunity to get sufficient sleep and are offered support if they’re having sleeping issues36. Taking a few simple steps to ensure a good night’s sleep can make all the difference to our mental health: follow a regular sleep routine (read our blog on Top Ten Tips for the Art of Sleep), avoid stimulants like caffeine and alcohol37, exercise, meditate, and ditch phones or laptops before bedtime38 39.


Photo by Alvan Nee on Unsplash

Julianna Photopoulos is a freelance science journalist who writes for a number of outlets, including New Scientist, Chemistry World, Nature, and Horizon magazine. As a night owl, she loves burning the midnight oil.

1  Does ‘Blue Monday’ really exist? – BBC Future
2 What is Sleep Hygiene?– BBC Worklife
3 Sleep and Mood | Need Sleeps  – Get Sleep
4 Shorter sleep duration and longer sleep onset latency are related to difficulty disengaging attention from negative emotional images in individuals with elevated transdiagnostic repetitive negative thinking – Chronobiology International – Journal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry
5 Sleep deprivation lowers inhibition and enhances impulsivity to negative stimuli  – Behavioural Brain Research
6 Identifying the Best Times for Cognitive Functioning Using New Methods: Matching University Times to Undergraduate Chronotypes – Frontiers in Human Neuroscience
7 Highway to health? Commute time and well-being among Canadian adults – World Leisure Journal
8 Great British Sleep Survey 2012 
9  Waking up to the health benefits of sleep – Royal Society for Public Health
10 Cumulative sleepiness, mood disturbance, and psychomotor vigilance performance decrements during a week of sleep restricted to 4-5 hours per night. – PubMed
11 I Sleep and Mood | Need Sleeps  – Get Sleep
12 Matthew Walker, Ph.D., on sleep – Part I of III: Dangers of poor sleep, Alzheimer’s risk, mental health, memory consolidation, and more – Peter Attia MD
13 Teens and sleep – National Sleep Foundation
14 Sleep divergently affects cognitive and automatic emotional response in children – Neuropsychologia
15 Dose-Dependent Associations Between Sleep Duration and Unsafe Behaviors Among US High School Students – JAMA Pediatrics
16 Science of sleep-blog_2-JP   
17 Get Enough Sleep– Mental Health America
18 Sleep and Disease Risk  – Healthy Sleep
19 Chronic Insomnia as a Risk Factor for Developing Anxiety and Depression – Sleep Research Society
20 Association of Poor Subjective Sleep Quality With Risk for Death by Suicide During a 10-Year Period – JAMA Psychiatry
21 Meta-analysis of sleep disturbance and suicidal thoughts and behaviors – APA PsychNET
22 Sleep and mental health – Harvard Medical School
23 Matthew Walker, Ph.D., on sleep – Part I of III: Dangers of poor sleep, Alzheimer’s risk, mental health, memory consolidation, and more – Peter Attia MD
24  Losing Neutrality: The Neural Basis of Impaired Emotional Control without Sleep– The Journal of Neuroscience
25 Sleep Deprivation and Interference by Emotional Distracters – Sleep
26 Tired and Apprehensive: Anxiety Amplifies the Impact of Sleep Loss on Aversive Brain Anticipation  – The Journal of Neuroscience
27 Sleep Deprivation Amplifies Reactivity of Brain Reward Networks, Biasing the Appraisal of Positive Emotional Experiences – The Journal of Neuroscience
28 The Role of Sleep in Cognition and Emotion – PDF
29 Early risers ‘less likely to develop mental health problems’ – The Guardian
30 Genome-wide association analyses of chronotype in 697,828 individuals provides insights into circadian rhythms – Nature Communications
31 Do Early Birds Have Less Mental Health Problems? –  The Sleep Council
32 Night owls: Simple sleep tweaks boost wellbeing – Nature Communications
33 The Role of Sleep in Interpersonal Conflict: Do Sleepless Nights Mean Worse Fights? –  PDF
34 To have and to hold: Gratitude promotes relationship maintenance in intimate bonds – APA PsychNET
35 The effects of sleep deprivation on emotional empathy –  Journal of Sleep Research
36  Waking up to the health benefits of sleep– Royal Society for Public Health PDF
37  Science of Sleep blog
38  How To Sleep Well For World Mental Health Day– The Sleep Council
39 What is Sleep Hygiene? – National Sleep Foundationconcepts

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