Treating Sleep Problems Helps Relieve Symptoms of Mental Illness

Friday, July 6, 2012
We feel our best after a good night’s sleep — on our game, alert and more likely to be in a good mood. The same holds true for people struggling with mental illnesses.
“The relationship between sleep and psychiatric conditions is strong,” said Joyce Davidson, MD, a psychiatrist with The Menninger Clinic's Compass Program for Young Adults in Houston. She says lack of sleep raises levels of stress hormones in the brain and exacerbates existing psychiatric problems such as depression and anxiety. “Getting enough sleep can make a world of difference in a patient’s mental health.”
A new study presented in June at the Associated Professional Sleep Societies in Boston backs Davidson’s experience. The study found that treating obstructive sleep apnea, a common sleep disorder, may ease the symptoms of depression in patients with the disorder. Patients in the study treated with continuous positive airway pressure slept better and felt better.
Depression is common in people who have sleep apnea. People with depression were found to be five times more likely to suffer from sleep-disordered breathing, according to a 2003 Stanford study. Other sleep problems, such as insomnia, difficulty staying asleep and daytime sleepiness, frequently are associated with depression. Evidence also suggests that people with insomnia have a ten-fold risk of developing depression compared with those who sleep well.

Sleep problems vs. depression

Determining which comes first — sleep problems or depression — can be difficult. Often patients are caught up in a vicious cycle of both.
“When there is a question, we investigate what is causing the sleep problem,” Dr. Davidson said. Determining sleep habits is an important part of Menninger’s patient assessment, which incorporates thorough neurological and psychiatric testing to develop an accurate diagnosis.
With a diagnosis in hand, clinicians and patients work together to treat the sleep problem. Medications have some short-term success in treating insomnia, but do little to correct the underlying sleep problem, Dr. Davidson said, adding that she recommends cognitive behavioral therapy when possible.
“People don’t appreciate the way that behavioral techniques are effective in relieving sleep problems,” she said.

Tips for a good night's sleep

Dr. Davidson offers the following sleep tips:
  • Set a consistent sleep schedule that involves going to sleep and waking up at the same time every day. Try to stick to this schedule as much as possible.
  • If you can’t sleep, don’t lie in bed, trying to fall asleep. Instead, give yourself 30 minutes to go to sleep. If you still can’t sleep, get out of bed and work on a quiet activity until you feel sleepy. Repeat the process until you finally go to sleep.
  • Use the bed for only two activities: sleep and sex.
“What you are trying to do is associate your bed with sleep,” Dr. Davidson said. “If you can actually train your brain to make that association, it will be much easier to fall asleep again.”