Surprising Link Between
Sleep Deprivation Psychosis & Mental Health

Disclaimer – Nothing on this website is intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment… Read more here

The scientific community has differing opinions about exactly how much sleep we need; however, we all know how critical sleep is for feeling our best. Quality rest rejuvenates our bodies, fosters muscle growth, repairs tissue, and allows for mental clarity.

 

We also require sleep to keep our brains healthy. A lack of sleep could cause a host of mental health issues. Some consequences are minor; for example, it could lead to a bad mood or a day that we're more absentminded than usual. However, if we deprive ourselves of shuteye for extended periods, we can do serious harm, like triggering mental illness.

 

We'll discuss its effect on the brain and ways you can avoid sleep deprivation psychosis and help you feel your best.

Section 1

What is Sleep Deprivation Psychosis?

Section 2

How Sleep Deprivation Affects the Brain

Section 3

How Sleep Affects Mental Health

Section 4

Symptoms of Sleep Deprivation

Section 5

Sleep Disorders in Psychiatric Patients

Section 6

Treatments and Interventions

Section 7

Frequently Asked Questions

Section 1

What is Sleep Deprivation Psychosis?

Section 2

How Sleep Deprivation Affects the Brain

Section 3

How Sleep Affects Mental Health

Section 4

Symptoms of Sleep Deprivation

Section 5

Sleep Disorders in Psychiatric Patients

Section 6

Treatments and Interventions

Section 7

Frequently Asked Questions

What is Sleep Deprivation Psychosis?

This term refers to mental disorders associated with sleep deprivation. It involves losing touch with reality. Not sleeping deprives your brain of the time it needs to sort out the loads of information you encounter each day. Without adequate hours for your brain to recharge, process, and filter out the unnecessary bits, it will struggle to distinguish between what's real and what isn't; the effects are disorders like schizophrenia, paranoia, and even hallucinations.

How Sleep Deprivation Affects the Brain

A lack of sleep can increase stress and even trigger depressive episodes. Further, struggling with stress, anxiety, and depression can make it harder to fall asleep, creating a vicious cycle of insomnia, stress, anxiety, and depression.

 

These conditions can affect our overall mood, physical health, and ability to focus and make critical choices. For example, individuals who work for a living may find their lack of sleep having profound effects on their ability to get a job done or may begin making mistakes. If a person works in construction or in a job that requires heavy machinery, sleep deprivation could have life-altering consequences.

Mood

When you're faced with sleep deprivation, even the most minor challenges can leave you feeling overwhelmed and in tears[1].

 

Sleep deprivation can put individuals young and old alike in a bad mood. When we're babies, parents often put us down for naps so we can recharge; even as adults, when we're cranky, we probably need sleep. Unfortunately, our culture seems to value sleep less and less as we age, neglecting how essential sleep is for our primary functions.

The unexpected flat tire or toddler tantrum is a lot easier to handle after a full night of rest.

Illustration of a Sad Woman Traveling to Work

Memory

Research indicates that sleep serves to process, solidify and consolidate our memories. As we muddle through our days, we are bombarded with information to process. It allows our brains time to sift through all the information we've received and store what's important in our long-term memory. Therefore, getting the right amount helps to keep our memory sharp.

 

If you're having trouble remembering where you put your keys, take a breath. Instead of assuming you're suffering from memory loss, you may just need a little more sleep.

Physical Health

Illustration of Tom at the Doctors Office Tired with a Huge Bags under his Eyes

The relationship between our physical health and sleep is well-researched. Studies have explicitly documented ties between poor sleep habits and a range of health issues and diseases. Not only does a lack of sleep make you tired and irritable, it puts you at a higher risk[2] for diabetes, obesity, high blood pressure, heart disease, and stroke.

 

Further, sleep deprivation can be a threat to your safety as well. Drivers who haven't had sufficient rest have been shown to have slower reaction times or even doze off behind the wheel.

Focus & Decision Making

When you're well-rested, it's much easier to stay focused on tasks, particularly if your job relies on your attention to detail. People who suffer from even one night of sleep deprivation have been shown to experience more difficulty focusing on tasks and staying alert throughout the day.

animation of coworkers who suffer from morning grogginess

The tech industry, primarily in Silicon Valley, is becoming well known for its progressive approach to focus and productivity, encouraging naps, meditation, and even psilocybin in some cases to enhance creativity and cognitive function— both of which sleep is essential.

 

Decision-making and focus are closely related, and research strongly indicates that a lack of rest hinders our ability to make wise decisions. When we're running low on sleep, we're less able to see the big picture, identify key details, and make critical decisions. In addition, sleep deprivation often leads to excess stress and anxiety, which has influenced our thinking skills.

 

Learn More: How Much Does Sleep Deprivation Cost?

Brain Fog

Getting a night of quality shuteye works similarly to a reset button for your mind. This happens on both a biological level as well as a mental level. Sleeping is a restorative process that cleanses our bodies of toxins, but it also helps clear the mind of the same.

 

If you've ever had a rough day, you may have thought to yourself; it'll all be better in the morning. Sleep allows your brain to recharge during the night, without which it can't function at full capacity the following day.

Illustration of a Woman Sleeping on Her Side

How Sleep Affects Mental Health

Lack of sleep is a key contributor to mental illness, including sleep-induced psychosis. The reason is that when we're sleep deprived, our brain rewires itself to adapt to its sleep-deprived state. Sleep deprivation is not only a symptom of mental illness but could be a cause of it as well.

 

To illustrate what that looks like in real life, Harvard scientists studied a group of students who had been awake for 35 hours straight to see how it affected their brains. They compared these students to the control group, which got a normal amount of rest. Both groups were shown a series of images ranging from every day, neutral images like baskets, to disturbing and violent pictures like burn victims.

Animated Image of Students in The Class Where One is Asleep While Another One Pays Attention

The sleep-deprived students' brains exhibited radically different behavior. In the sleep-deprived students' amygdalas, or the part of the brain that experiences emotions, were sending signals to the brain that triggers intense emotions, like fight-or-flight responses. In the control group, the amygdala was connecting to the prefrontal cortex, which is in charge of logic and decision-making, allowing them to remain calm.

 

The results of this study show us that when we get enough rest, we're better at processing outside stimuli and distinguishing between real and perceived threats. However, when faced with deprivation, our brains shift into survival mode and begin to interpret more surroundings as threats, which results in irrational, and, sometimes, even violent behavior.

 

Read More: How Sleep Affects Students and Their Success

Symptoms of Sleep Deprivation

Sleepiness

Naturally, if you're not sleeping enough, you'll feel sleepy. If you've had a couple of rough nights where you haven't slept well, or you pulled a recent all-nighter, it's natural that you're going to feel drowsy the next day.

 

If these sleepless nights continue for several days or weeks, you may notice that instead of feeling a little tired, you'll be run down or fatigued. When this happens, it's going to take several consecutive nights of adequate rest to get back on track.

Mood Changes

Not resting adequately at night affects the function of our brain's frontal lobe, which has been found to be linked to disorders like depression and anxiety[3]. In fact, studies show that depressed patients who struggle with sleep issues are less responsive to treatment than those with healthy sleep habits. Left unchecked, symptoms of these disorders can worsen, potentially leading to life-threatening consequences, like suicide.
Managing Sleep and Depresison Illustration

Diminished Focus

Studies on sleep deprivation have shown a direct impact on cognitive performance[4], particularly our ability to focus and concentrate. All-nighters are often synonymous with the American college lifestyle, but this tactic may be more harmful than helpful.

 

Sleep deprivation impairs your ability to focus, make decisions, and concentrate. A significant number of today's headlines about fatal disasters can be traced back to someone who was chronically sleep-deprived. Whether it's an overworked doctor or an engineer at a nuclear power plant, lives are at risk if someone's not paying attention.

Low Performance

Even losing just a bit of sleep each night can compromise your performance and affect your ability to do routine tasks. According to the CDC, people who get less than seven hours nightly show the same impairment as someone who's consumed alcohol.

 

Not only is this dangerous for driving[5], but the study indicates that not enough sleep can be detrimental for athletes as well. Sleep deprivation could impair one's reaction time, hand-eye coordination, and strategic thought process.

person falling asleep driving with kids in the backseat

Memory and Cognitive Problems

Not only does sleep help us build our long-term memory bank, but it's necessary for short-term memory, attention, and processing speed. Studies have objectively shown that “more sleep[6] leads to better cognitive performance and vice versa.”

 

One of the most dangerous cognitive issues associated with sleep deprivation is decreased judgment. Since the part of our brain that has to do with logic and reasoning isn't as active, we tend to be more impulsive, take unnecessary risks, plan things poorly, and even focus on short-term rewards instead of longer-term consequences.

Disorientation, Hallucinations, & Paranoia

After only one night of no sleep, symptoms like hallucination and paranoia can appear. While these symptoms aren't as common, as most people tend to get at least a few hours of rest, they can quickly appear after a few nights of poor sleep[7], particularly in people who are predisposed to conditions like bipolar affective disorder, schizophrenia, and depression.

 

In fact, sleep loss can trigger mood episodes in patients with bipolar illness. When a person is experiencing a manic or bipolar episode, they may not register the passage of time, feel the need to rest[8], or even know what day it is. Episodes can include visual hallucinations and paranoia, in that they may think people they would normally trust are out to get them.

Sleep Disorders in Psychiatric Patients

Depression

A Harvard study found that in depressed children[9], 90% of them experienced some type of sleep problem. The reverse appeared evident as well, being that those who don't get adequate rest are also more likely to suffer from depression. Further, if it continues during treatment, the patient is more likely to suffer a relapse.

Depressed Woman Trying To Fall Asleep Animation

Anxiety Disorder

Anxiety is frequently associated with sleep issues; many of us who don't even consider anxiety to be a strong influence in our lives still understand what it's like to be lying in bed while wide awake worrying about our woes.

 

While sleep deprivation is linked more strongly to depression, there is also a strong causal link to anxiety disorders[10] too. Unfortunately, research shows that anxiety can also lead to insomnia as well, creating a vicious cycle.

Bipolar Disorder

People with bipolar swing between episodes of manic happiness and extreme depression. Often, manic episodes will happen after a prolonged period of limited sleep. The majority of the time, people in a manic episode[11] report sleeping less. This period is followed by needing excessive sleeping hours as the bipolar patient transitions into a deep depression.

 

Learn More: Bipolar Disorder and Sleep

animated image of bipolar person experiencing ups and downs

ADHD

In addition to not being able to focus and pay attention, patients with ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) also tend to have trouble falling asleep and staying unconscious. They may be fitful and also have restless leg syndrome or sleep-related breathing issues. Again, these symptoms build on themselves, and doctors often have a hard time deciding whether a patient's ADHD is affecting their sleeping, or if poor quality sleep is causing ADHD.

Schizophrenia

We already know that sleep deprivation leads to delusions, hallucinations, and paranoia. Similarly, patients who were awake for twenty-four hours started to experience symptoms that looked like schizophrenia. Scientists who conducted the study surmise that lack of it, even for just a couple of nights, causes chaos in the brain and makes it difficult to filter information properly.

animated image of a kid with sensory processing disorder who can't fall asleep

Treatments and Interventions

Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy

CBT, or Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, is a type of psychological treatment that can help with a multitude of mental health issues. The primary focus of CBT is on changing cognitive distortions and negative behaviors; it can also help reframe certain beliefs or attitudes in the patient's mind, ultimately positively affecting their behavior.

Illustration of A Woman Sitting in a Chair with a Sponsor as She Talking

Lifestyle Changes

Avoiding caffeine, nicotine, and alcohol, especially at night, may help to improve the situation. Caffeine and nicotine are stimulants, and they're more likely to keep you awake if they're consumed in the afternoon. And while alcohol may make you drowsy, the effect doesn't last long, and you're more likely to sleep restlessly and wake up.


Want to learn more? Find out how caffeine affects our sleep here.

Physical Activity

Regular exercise helps balance your stress and hormones. Plus, it'll put you in a better mood and ease stress and anxiety, all helpful in getting rest. Doctors recommend exercising early in the day if you're worried about being too wound up when it's time for bed.

Illustration of a Woman Hiking

Sleep Hygiene

Sleep hygiene refers to your sleeping habits. By going to bed and waking up at the same time each day, you'll be able to plan to get the right amount of bedtime, and you'll have less trouble falling asleep at night and waking up in the morning. Be sure to keep your bedroom dark without lights or television. Having electronic devices in the room with lights and sounds (other than relaxing music or white noise) will disrupt the quality and quantity of your shuteye.


Interested in learning more? Check out our 9 sleep hygiene tips that can help you.

Relaxation Techniques

Meditation and breathing exercises help to relax you and prepare you for bedtime. If you've had a particularly stressful day, meditating before sleep can clear your mind of the day's troubles and allow you to drift off without feeling troubled.

Illustration of a Woman Meditating Before Going to Bed

Medical Options

If natural treatments and lifestyle changes aren't enough to do the trick and you're experiencing severe brain disorders along with insomnia, a prescription may be in order, at least temporarily. Patients have often been prescribed the following medication:

 

  • Depression: Lunesta or Prozac

  • Bipolar affective disorder: Sonata, Neurontin, or Gabitril

  • Anxiety: Xanax, Lyrica (strangely that's a drug given to patients with fibromyalgia

  • ADHD: Ritalin (exercise caution as this is a methamphetamine and can cause insomnia and mood changes)

Frequently Asked Questions

Can insomnia be considered a mental illness?

Insomnia by itself is not considered a mental illness. However, it is a symptom of nearly every mental illness and/or psychosis. Patients with psychological disorders almost always report not sleeping well. Studies suggest that insomnia is, in fact, a leading cause of mental illnesses[12].

[1] Lawrence Epstein, MD,“ Why your sleep and wake cycles affect your mood ”, Harvard Health, May 13, 2020.


[2] “Sleep Deprivation and Deficiency”, National Heart Lung and Blood Institute, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services


[3] “Sleep Deprivation and Deficiency”, National Heart Lung and Blood Institute, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services


[4] Paula Alhola and Päivi Polo-Kantola, “Sleep Deprivation: Impact on Cognitive Performance”, Neuropsychiatric Disease and Treatment, Dove Medical Press, 2007.


[5] “CDC – Drowsy Driving- Sleep and Sleep Disorders”, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, March 21, 2017.


[6] Janna Mantua and Guido Simonelli, “Sleep Duration and Cognition: Is There an Ideal Amount?”, OUP Academic, Oxford University Press, January 12, 2019.


[7] “Sleep and Mental Health – Harvard Health Publishing”, Harvard Health, March 18, 2019.


[8] Luca Jr Steardo, et al., “Sleep Disturbance in Bipolar Disorder: NEUROGLIA and Circadian Rhythms”, Frontiers, January 1, 2019.


[9] “Sleep and Mental Health – Harvard Health Publishing”, Harvard Health, March 18, 2019.


[10] “People Who Sleep Less than 8 Hours a Night More Likely to Suffer from Depression, Anxiety”, ScienceDaily, January 4, 2018.


[11] Katie Swaden Lewis, et al., “Sleep Loss as a Trigger of Mood Episodes in Bipolar Disorder: Individual Differences Based on Diagnostic Subtype and Gender”, The British Journal of Psychiatry : the Journal of Mental Science, Royal College of Psychiatrists


[12] Sara G. Miller, “Lack of Sleep May Be a Cause, Not a Symptom, of Mental Health Conditions”, LiveScience, Purch, September 6, 2017.

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