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Are Sleep Problems Affecting Your Mental Health? (From U.S. News and World Report)

You’re not quite yourself when you don’t get the rest you need.

Whether you’re simply failing to get sufficient sleep, have a sleep disorder or are not getting quality zzz’s for another reason, research shows your sleep problems could be a drag on your overall well-being – including heart health, raising cardiovascular risk; and the studies show the ill effects can extend to mental health.

"Getting sufficient sleep night after night has been linked to reduced risk factors for developing more serious mental illnesses and affective disorders, like depression especially," says Elizabeth Kensinger, a professor of psychology at Boston College, and director of the school’s sleep lab. "It also seems like getting a good night’s sleep may minimize the likelihood of having anxiety disorders as well."

Research shows you’re more likely to develop depression or have more severe depression if you don’t get adequate, restful sleep. "People who have no known anxiety disorders or difficulties, seem to feel a bit more jittery if they’re sleep deprived for long periods of time," says Dr. Karl Doghramji, director of the Jefferson Sleep Disorders Center and a professor of psychiatry and human behavior at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia. "People who have anxiety disorders – post-traumatic stress and so on – seem to have an intensification of those anxiety states."

The Dangers of Sleepless Nights

Just as a lack of rest can dangerously slow a person’s reaction time when driving, it can also reduce impulse control and impair cognitive function. Sleep disturbance is associated with an increased risk for suicidal thoughts, as well as attempting suicide or taking one's own life.

Though psychiatrists and other mental health professionals may pay close attention to the potential effects of sleep problems on a person’s psychological well-being, experts say as a society we still don’t fully appreciate how a sleep deficit can undermine body and mind. “In general sleep is overlooked significantly in terms of its effect on body function and mental function,” Doghramji says. And while we may place value on productivity – burning the candle at both ends – we can fail to appreciate what we’re actually missing. “It’s very easy to think about sleep as nothing – as the absence of activity,” Kensinger says. In reality, she says, the brain is actually incredibly active when a person is snoozing away.

Perhaps you recently awoke with a breakthrough idea or new clarity on a personal matter. “Often those aha moments are coming because sleep is allowing flexible communication between different regions of the brain,” she says. “It may only be during sleep when our brain isn’t being bombarded with lots of new information when it has a chance to just kind of form and try out and play around with different possible connections and associations with information, that we might be able to reach this aha moment – to have this point of insight.”

In the absence of regular, quality sleep, though, we may be left in the dark, even in the light of day – hamstrung in our ability to function in ways ranging from emotion regulation to tackling complex tasks at work. "Being sleep-deprived can really kind of strip away our ability to think creatively," Kensinger says.

Resting Up for a Better Tomorrow

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, at least 1 in 3 adults doesn't get adequate sleep, at least seven hours or more. One way research brings the consequences of our collective lack of rest into sharp relief is by focusing on so-called “short sleep.” The definition varies somewhat depending on the study, but this essentially involves getting less than five or six hours of sleep. This can potentially raise one’s risk for medical and psychological conditions ranging from heart disease, high blood pressure and diabetes to depression. But complicating the fix is the fact that while it may be a good idea for most adults, on average, to get between seven and nine hours of sleep, experts note that the amount each individual needs varies. Some people actually do fine on what amounts to short sleep, though most suffer when trying to push that envelope.

Nor is there a simple way to determine precisely how much rest a person needs. But Kensinger recommends that people pay attention to how they feel during their waking hours. “Does it seem like most of the time, a few hours into the day, they’re still feeling refreshed?" Kensinger says. "Or that perhaps even if they woke up a little sluggish, that that seems to fade pretty quickly, and an hour later, they feel like they’re ready to get on with their day? That would be an indication that the person’s sleep quality is actually fairly good,” she says. However, if a person is consistently waking up not feeling refreshed, that could indicate at the very least that they need to take a look at how much sleep they're getting. To keep track, Kensinger recommends jotting down basic information, such as when a person goes to bed and wakes up, how long he or she slept and how refreshed they feel throughout the day.

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