I recognized several years ago that not getting a full night’s sleep for a few days in a row will get me depressed; fortunately the effects of sleep deprivation usually don’t occur for me until about three or more days without enough of it. On the other hand, sleeping when I am not really tired can really get me depressed, so I avoid oversleeping and napping (although a short 30-minute nap in the early afternoon is usually fine if I didn’t get enough sleep the night before).
The Science of Sleep Deprivation and Depression
I was surprised to learn that, unlike sleep deprivation’s negative impact on my own personal mood, losing one night’s sleep actually improves the short term moods of most depressed people. But the effects are short-lived and not sustainable: long-term sleep deprivation is associated with depression. Additionally, your chronotype (whether you’re naturally a night owl or a morning person) largely determines the effect that sleep deprivation will have on your depression. I happen to be a morning person, and this chronotype is more likely to experience increased depression after sleep deprivation.
Scientists and doctors know that depression and sleep problems often coexist. What is less clear in each particular case is whether one problem is causing the other, or whether they’re both symptoms of another underlying cause, like imbalanced brain chemistry, stress, or anxiety. The relationship between sleep (or lack thereof) and depression is highly variable amongst individuals. If you’re curious to learn more, an in-depth article about the relationship between sleep and depression can be found at the National Sleep Foundation website.
I’ve Been Sleep-Deprived Lately
Lately I have experienced an erratic sleep schedule trying to get a house project done quickly. I spent four nights staying up late and getting about 5 hours of sleep on average, only waking up about an hour later than usual. I saw a drop in mood for those few days of sleep restriction, and quite naturally felt tired and sluggish. On the fourth night (last night) I worked through the night, not feeling tired and only sleeping from 7am until 9am before getting up to go to work. Normally my brain fatigues significantly at night around 8pm, but I never experienced it last night until I finally lay in bed. Today I am not experiencing brain fatigue or lethargy, although sporadically I almost drift away for a minute. And, interestingly, my mood today has been great, although it dipped toward the end of the day.
How to Improve Your Sleep (and Hopefully Alleviate Depression and Anxiety)
I recommend reading the University of Maryland Medical Center’s sleep hygiene tips and comparing them to your current habits. The tips are great, and they just might fix sleep problems and help to improve your mood.
Some doctors are considering using sleep deprivation as a treatment for depression. But because of the negative side effects of sleep deprivation, it does not sound like a fun (or healthy) long-term way to treat depression. And it’s not feasibly sustainable. Personally, I am going to stick with the healthier alternative of maintaining good “sleep hygiene”. I have found that having a regular sleep schedule is a good way for me to avoid the pitfalls of depression and anxiety caused by lack of sleep.
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