the link between sleep and mental health

The Link Between Sleep and Mental Well-Being

By Claire Gillespie
Reviewed by Susan Ko, Ph.D.
March 24, 2023
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As mental and emotional well‑being become a priority for many of us, it’s tempting to turn to others for help keeping it on track. Although options like therapy, support groups, and yoga classes can be extremely valuable, don’t underestimate the power that your everyday lifestyle can have on your well‑being—and that includes sleep.

Quality sleep is a vital component of your physical and emotional health. The relationship between sleep and mental well‑being is well documented. In fact, research findings published in 2018 in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health used a cross-sectional survey of 2,495 full-time final-year university students in China to suggest a strong association between sleep quality and psychological well‑being.

The Effects of Sleep on Mood and Emotional Well-Being

Some people might be lucky enough to bounce out of bed feeling great after only a few hours of good sleep, but most of us feel the adverse effects of a restless night. “Poor sleep can make us more irritable, less patient, and more easily upset,” says Janet Kennedy, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and sleep specialist based in New York City.

Poor sleep also can lead to increased feelings of anxiety and sadness, adds Joshua Tal, Ph.D., a New York City clinical psychologist. Plus, it can decrease the mechanisms in the body that calm inflammation, which can increase pain and affect your ability to regulate your mood.

“In other words, you might have a stressor that normally you can handle,” Tal says, “but bad sleep causes decreases in concentration, memory, and stamina, leading to decreased coping and impaired mood.”

Although poor sleep can lead to more fatigue, which then affects mood, the relationship between fatigue and mood is not absolute, points out Robin MacFarlane, Ph.D., a New York City–based clinical psychologist specializing in sleep problems and anxiety.

“Fatigue waxes and wanes throughout the course of the day, whether you’ve had poor sleep or not, and mood also fluctuates,” Kennedy adds. Meaning even if you feel fatigued and irritable at 3 p.m., it’s possible you may feel a whole lot better at 8 p.m.

It’s important to define good sleep properly—and to be realistic about your expectations. “No one can expect to sleep well every single night,” Kennedy says, “and a bad night or even a bad patch isn’t likely to have a long-term negative impact.” In fact, Kennedy believes it’s important not to stress about an occasional rough night of sleep so you can return to better sleep more quickly.

How Much Sleep Do You Really Need?

Guidelines from the American Academy of Sleep Medicine and Sleep Research Society suggest that adults aim to get seven or more hours of sleep each night. Although this is a good general guideline, each person’s sleep needs can vary.

To figure out how much sleep you need, Kennedy recommends getting up at the same time every day and not going to bed until you’re very sleepy. Doing this for two to three weeks while keeping a sleep diary to help identify a pattern with your bedtimes can provide a good indication of your sleep needs.

Still, sometimes we all need a little extra rest, so it’s not an exact science. Tal says that it can be difficult to determine the right quantity of sleep for your individual needs, and he suggests focusing on sleep quality rather than quantity.

“If your sleep is interrupted by lights, noises, or apneic events [pauses in breathing], then you may need a full 10 hours,” Tal says. “Most people can tell if they got enough sleep by checking their mood and energy levels 30–60 minutes after waking.”

But know that it is possible to get too much sleep. “While it’s important to allow sufficient time for sleep and make sure you’re setting yourself up with good habits, trying to get more sleep than you need can actually make things worse,” Kennedy says. For instance, if you need seven hours and try to get eight, you may end up getting fragmented sleep.

How to Promote Better, Healthier Sleep

Practicing good sleep hygiene can help you get better sleep and boost your overall health and well‑being.

Start by setting a consistent wake-up time, which sets your body clock and makes it easier to fall asleep at night. “Waking up at the same time every day benefits sleep even more than a consistent bedtime,” MacFarlane says. “Sleep is part of a bigger 24-hour circadian rhythm, and finding a consistent wake-up time that works for you can pay off night after night.”

Another important component of good sleep hygiene is creating a space that’s conducive to sleep. Aim to keep your bedroom:

  • Cool
  • Dark
  • Quiet
  • Free of electronic devices

“Allow time to wind down from the intensity of the day before going to bed,'' adds Tal. “The brain needs a chance to downshift from all of the stimulation it manages before it can transition into sleep mode.”

And don't underestimate the valuable role healthy lifestyle habits can play in promoting quality sleep, Kennedy says. Be sure to:

  • Eat a healthy, varied diet and avoid large meals at night
  • Exercise regularly and do so earlier in the day
  • Avoid caffeine, alcohol, sugar, and other substances, or use in moderation
  • Take steps to manage stress

At the same time, putting too much pressure on yourself to sleep could have the opposite effect, causing extra stress. “Sleep is important,” emphasizes Tal, “but people are resilient and able to overcome many of the obstacles created by bad sleep.” So, take steps to determine what works for you when it comes to sleep and stick to it—for your physical and emotional health.

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