Sleep and our mental health are closely connected. Poor mental health can disrupt our sleep, and a lack of sleep can affect our mental health.

While a good night’s sleep can leave us feeling energised and invigorated, not getting enough sleep can leave us lethargic, irritable and unable to concentrate.

"Sleep is hugely important for mental wellbeing," says our member Eve Menezes Cunningham, author of 365 Ways to Feel Better: Self-care Ideas for Embodied Wellbeing.

"Besides being important for cognitive function, helping the body to heal and laying down new memories, we're more resilient and capable, and generally more relaxed and happy, when we're well rested."

What are the main causes of lack of sleep?

If you have trouble sleeping, you’re not alone. Stresses and worries about money, work or relationships can keep you awake.

In our Public Perceptions Survey conducted in February 2022, 48% of people said their sleep had been negatively affected by the pandemic, with 46% of those saying worries stopped them falling asleep. The survey also found that 16% of people in the UK were already losing sleep over the cost of living crisis.

Trauma can have a huge impact on feeling safe enough to let go and sleep, Eve says.

"Nightmares, in terms of processing trauma, while ultimately beneficial and therapeutic when we work with them, can also make people afraid to sleep.

"Then there's anxiety and stress, busyness and not taking enough down time, as well as illness, injury and any kind of pain that makes it hard to get comfortable. So many things can keep people awake, and our 24/7 society means we have to consciously take the time to wind down and prioritise sleep."

Other reasons for sleep problems could include sleep disorders, and mental and physical health conditions. They could be caused by recreational drugs, taking or coming off medication or the use of caffeine, nicotine, alcohol or late-night eating. Your circumstances can also play a role, such as being a parent or a carer, or working shifts or at night.

How many hours sleep do we need?

While the NHS says adults need between seven and nine hours sleep a night, everyone is different. New parents and people with chronic conditions that affect sleep get by on much less. Some people need more.

"Log your sleep and your mood to get a better sense of how much sleep you need," says Eve. Tracker apps can help but you know yourself best. When do you wake up feeling most rested and refreshed?

"Some people find that too much sleep leads to lethargy and headaches," she says. "It can also be a sign of depression. Or it could simply be your body recovering and catching up on years' worth of too little sleep. Again, log the amount and how you feel."

How does better sleep improve mental health?

Eve says sleep "allows us to regenerate and heal".

"A good night's sleep can cure so much," she adds. "We also need to be able to dream and connect with our unconscious minds to help us process life. Missing out on dreaming can affect mental health too."

Can a lack of sleep cause anxiety?

"Everything feels more bleak when we're tired," says Eve. "We have less resilience. Good things can feel more fleeting and bad things more permanent. We're not at our most resourceful."

Other psychological effects of a lack of sleep can include low mood, irritability, forgetfulness, poor decision making and even psychotic experiences such as hallucinations.

Not getting enough sleep can affect us physically too, through lack of energy and a weakened immune system. Research suggests it can also lead to an increased risk of stroke, heart disease and obesity.

What can help with sleep problems?

"There are many things that can help,” says Eve. “My favourites are the breath and soothing self-talk."

Eve adds: "You can use the breath to change the way you feel but go easy on yourself and avoid worrying that even breathing is a challenge.

"With this gentle, compassionate and curious approach, you can get a sense of your breath right now.

"Are you breathing from the top of the lungs? Middle? Lower lungs? How does it feel to bring the breath down as if breathing from the belly? This will, if comfortable for you, begin to send signals of safety to the brain allowing deeper relaxation.

"Now notice the length. Is your inhale longer? Or your exhale? Are they even? To help activate your rest response, experiment with a slightly longer exhalation, if that feels comfortable for you.

"This can even be done under your duvet when struggling to sleep or if you wake up in the night."

Eve suggests making your bedroom as comfortable as possible, doing some sleep-inducing yoga, or getting active. Try keeping a journal, avoid caffeine and alcohol, and mentally visit your happy place.

"It’s important to be a sleep detective and find out the things that work for you," she says. "Create a log of what you've done, so you can see the impact it has had on your sleep."

Can counselling help with insomnia and sleep issues?

Insomnia and difficulties sleeping can be triggered by emotional or mental health problems. A visit to your GP may be helpful, and they will advise whether a short course of medication is needed.

However therapy can help you get to the root of the worries, concerns and emotional issues that can keep you awake.

"Shine a light on what's keeping you up with a trusted therapist and you'll not only learn ways to help you sleep now, but also help resolve the issues that kept you awake in the first place," says Eve.