Jessica Bleninger, PsyD, LP

Are you aware of sleep’s impact on your life?

Most people would agree that sleep plays an important role in our overall health, yet its purpose and effects seem to be widely misunderstood. Sleep can feel like a commodity we trade-in for things such as work, school, housework, hobbies, parenting, spending time with loved ones, or catching-up on your favorite Netflix show. Many people believe that sleep merely allows us to regain the energy necessary to get through the next day or believe that we can “make it up” if we’re lacking; however, the impacts of sleep are much greater than this. Perhaps such misunderstandings, alongside societal demands and values, create a tendency for us to remain sleep-deprived. The effects on our physical body and mental health can be both short and long-term.

Sleep Deprivation Defined

What is sleep deprivation exactly? It is defined by the American Sleep Association as “not obtaining adequate total sleep” and is associated with symptoms such as excessive daytime sleepiness, fatigue, poor concentration, being “clumsy,” and changes in weight. Sleep researchers have yet to discover specific standards for quality sleep, partly because it is different for each person. Also, it is now understood that number of total hours slept is not the only important factor. Researchers believe the quality of sleep one gains while sleeping is as important – if not more important – as the total hours spent in bed. Furthermore, the different stages of sleep we achieve are associated with different biological and mental functions, making the effects of sleeping problems complex.

Cognitive Impact

We all know the feeling of drowsiness that takes over our physical body and makes it difficult to keep our eyelids open, but what is happening emotionally and cognitively when we are sleep deprived? Cognitively, mental functions such as problem-solving, judgment and analytical thinking decrease and require additional mental energy compared to when we have slept well. Sleep also plays a vital role in learning and memory. Not only does being well-rested allow us to acquire new information more efficiently, it is vital to encoding that information in our long-term memory so we can retrieve it later. This is known as a process called consolidation. Without this process we wouldn’t remember the knowledge that we “know” or be able to demonstrate skills we’ve learned how to “do.” Additionally, even if new information has been successfully learned and consolidated in our memory, overworked neurons may have a difficult time retrieving that information in those who are sleep-deprived. When we are chronically tired, it is not only the neurons in our memory centers of the brain that suffer. Neurons which are connected to our muscular system and other organs also have trouble communicating with our body. This disconnect can commonly lead to accidents associated with workplace injury, unsafe driving, mental errors, slowed reaction time, and general mistakes.

Emotional Impact

Emotionally, a reduction in sleep can lead to disturbances in mood. Irritability is probably one of the most recognized emotional symptoms associated with poor sleep, although some might be surprised to know that poor sleep can lead to anxiety, depression, general feelings of stress, and decreased optimism. Poor sleep has even been correlated with decreased sociability. This can lead to conflict within relationships and decreased relationship satisfaction overall. The effects of decreased social interaction and low social satisfaction can be a risk factor for those seeking treatment for mental health concerns. Research has shown that by regulating sleep patterns, those with mental health diagnoses such as depression and anxiety have shown a reduction in symptoms and increased social interaction.

The emotional issues connected to sleep can be tricky in the sense we can get stuck in an unrelenting cycle between symptoms and sleep deprivation. For example, stress can cause one to spend hours awake in bed at night and the lack of sleep, in turn, can increase overall stress. Similarly, how we cope with sleep issues can also lead to the perpetuation of the problem. When people cannot sleep, they often resort to doing other things in bed such as watching tv or checking social media on their smartphones which may deactivate the production of melatonin, signaling our brain and body to be awake. Some may also turn to substances such as alcohol due to their sedative properties. However, these effects are only short-term and can trigger the body to wake up once processed in the body.

Mental Health

This relationship is also seen in depression and anxiety, where both disorders can initiate sleep issues and sleep issues can contribute to the onset of mental health symptoms. The National Sleep Foundation states that people who have insomnia are 10 times more likely to develop depression. Furthermore, those with sleep apnea are 5 times more likely to develop depression than those who sleep well. This can lead to misdiagnosis between mental health diagnoses and sleep disorders or can lead to one or the other being missed in treatment. When both are present, it is important that one’s treatment consider both. Given the complex interaction of sleep issues and mental/emotional health, it is important to inform your medical and mental health professionals of all symptoms you are experiencing. It is also recommended that those who are experiencing sleep issues discuss this with your doctor from a medical standpoint to rule-out any potential medical or physical issues that could impact quality of sleep.

While poor sleep hygiene, or sleep habits, are a common cause for sleep issues, they are not the only reason why someone might not sleep well. There are sleep disorders which may need additional assessment and specific medical and/or psychological treatment to improve. In addition to talking with your doctor and treatment team, you can find more information regarding sleep hygiene in the links below.

The University of Minnesota’s “Taking Charge of your Health & Wellbeing” webpage offers helpful resources if you want to read more on this topic.

For more information on current sleep recommendations, click here.

For more information on techniques for managing insomnia, click here.


University of MN Health & Wellbeing

Harvard Healthy Sleep

Sleep Association

Sleep Foundation