Sleep, Mental Health, and Happiness

Mental health, happiness, and sleep are closely intertwined and have a complex relationship. Sleep deprivation in general makes us feel irritated and exhausted in the short term, but in the long term, it might lead to severe physical and mental health consequences. It might also cause severe psychiatric disorders such as anxiety, depression, and bipolar disorder. In the same way, living with a mental health condition can negatively impact our sleep.

Happiness is a psychological state in which a person feels a sense of gratification and pleasure with regard to both simple and important things in life. This comes from various activities like social interactions, pursuing a hobby, accomplishing decided targets in life, and most importantly, good quality of sleep. An average individual spends one-third of her time sleeping. Keeping this in mind, a lot of effort has been put into the study of the relationship between sleep and happiness. Happiness is reflected by positive behavior such as gratitude, altruism, and appreciation. It helps us fight negative feelings such as fear and anger by positively impacting our physical, mental, and social state. Lack of sleep makes us irritated and cranky. We tend to always have the feeling of wanting to sleep more and avoid interactions. Thus, our behavior in the sleep-deprived state varies significantly from when we are well-rested.

The amygdala in the brain is our emotional center. It is responsible for responses of fight and flight, stress, fear, and anger. When an individual is well-rested, her amygdala is controlled and kept in check by the prefrontal cortex. This helps us to process our feelings in a better way and provide a well-balanced, appropriate response in any situation. If a person is not well-rested, this control is lost, affecting our response. The amygdala becomes 60% more reactive and the risk of mood swings increases. A sleepy brain is five times more prone to depression and twenty times more prone to anxiety disorders. According to a study on Japanese adolescents published in Sleep Medicine(May 2020) by Otsuka et al., a linear relationship was observed between sleep problems and their subjective happiness scores.

The following psychological conditions can be detrimental to sleep:

Stress –

When a person is sleep-deprived, it becomes extremely difficult to deal with even minor levels of stress. This makes us extremely sensitive and irritated. Petty things become a major source of frustration.

Depression –

This is a mood disorder marked by the overwhelming feeling of sadness and helplessness. Lack of sleep can cause depression. It also has the potential to exacerbate the symptoms of depression via a negative feedback loop. Poor sleep worsens depression which further interrupts sleep. If early insomnia is treated well, it reduces the risk of depression. Hence, we conclude that sleep deprivation and depression are mutually reinforcing.

Anxiety –

Anxiety disorders cause us to worry excessively. It includes social anxiety disorder, phobias, post-traumatic stress disorder(PTSD), obsessive-compulsive disorder(OCD), panic disorder, etc. This affects our everyday life and increases the risk of various physical and mental health problems. Worry and fear take us to the state of hyperarousal which makes our mind alert, leading to insomnia.

People suffering from PTSD tend to replay negative events in their minds and suffer from nightmares. Hence, their mind is always alert and unable to rest. Poor sleep and insomnia significantly contribute to anxiety.

Bipolar disorder –

This is a condition during which a person experiences extreme moods. There are two phases of it – high(mania) and lows(depression). The feelings and symptoms of a person may differ according to the phases they are experiencing. During the manic episodes, they do not feel the need to sleep but in the case of the depressive ones, a person tends to sleep excessively. This major shift in sleep often continues for a person in between episodes. Sleep problems tend to induce and worsen the occurrence of high and low episodes.

Schizophrenia –

This condition makes it difficult for a person to differentiate between what is real and unreal. They have a higher chance of experiencing sleep-related disorders and disturbed circadian rhythm. Medications used to treat schizophrenia also contribute to sleep problems.

ADHD –

It is a neurodevelopmental disorder. Its symptoms include reduced attention span and increased impulsiveness. It is usually diagnosed in children. Sleeping problems are relatively common in these patients. They have difficulty in falling asleep, frequent awakenings, and excessive daytime sleepiness. Some also have severe conditions like obstructive sleep apnea, restless leg syndrome, etc. ADHD and sleep have a bidirectional relationship.

Good quality sleep is essential for neurodevelopment. It ensures a healthy and well-functioning brain. It also maintains brain plasticity and prevents the loss of brain tissue. When awake, it ensures our safety while performing various activities such as driving. A good quality sleep of at least 8 hours enables us to handle our workload efficiently. We happen to balance our personal and professional life well. It helps us to be very patient and communicate well with our kids and spouse. We tend to be more energetic and tend to exercise more and put in more efforts towards a healthy and active lifestyle.

Ways to take care of mental health and sleep:

  • Simple exercises like walking, yoga, regular sports, etc., for at least half an hour per day, are helpful in getting a good night’s sleep. It is also good for relieving stress.
  • A healthy diet is essential for a well-functioning mind. Our gut and brain are closely wound and eating healthy, good quality and quantity of food are helpful in maintaining our mental health. Eating greasy and junk food adversely affects our sleep quality in the long run.
  • Following a fixed sleep routine every day makes us sleepy every day at the same time. This enables us to get a good night’s sleep so that we are fresh and efficient the next day.
  • Practicing gratitude is a habit that helps us restore mental peace. It instills positivity in us such that we are capable of dealing with all situations in life and being happy.
  • Picking up a hobby is a good way to deal with our mental health. Based on our level of interest, it helps us to relax for some time.
  • Setting up goals and priorities and pursuing them in a planned way helps us feel satisfied and hopeful of achieving a set target per day. This also allows us to go to bed peacefully and get a good quality sleep.
  • Connecting with people, and sharing thoughts, ideas and feelings help us to understand the world in a better way. It exposes us to a lot of new places, things, etc.

According to the World Happiness Report, 2022, India ranks 136 among 146 countries. To improve this, putting an effort into increasing sleep awareness is essential. This will help in taking care of our mental health as well as our happiness. It has to be achieved by combined efforts of policymakers, health professionals, and the general public. Policies should be made such that sleep is emphasized since childhood in schools. Adolescents should be educated about it with greater emphasis. Curriculums need to be designed such that students do not need to compromise sleep. A healthy work culture, where the working population is well-rested, peaceful, and happy, should not only be promoted but also be demanded by the public. If all of us work together towards this, a physically, mentally healthy, and happy society is not too far.

References:

Otsuka, Y., Kaneita, Y., Itani, O., Jike, M., Osaki, Y., Higuchi, S., … & Yoshimoto, H. (2020). The relationship between subjective happiness and sleep problems in Japanese adolescents. Sleep medicine69, 120-126.

https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/caring-for-your-mental-health
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