The Psychology of Sleep
Written by Vanessa Murphy // Photographed by Jillian VanDyke
Sleep is more important to the body than one would think. It has a direct correlation to the health of our mind and to our physical appearance.
Do you have trouble sleeping at night? Do you find yourself wondering if there is a certain position or some homemade remedies that will make the night less restless for you? Well, you’re not alone! Sleeping is vital for our physical and mental health, but getting the right and consistent hours of sleep every night can be a struggle. So how important is sleep to the body, really?
Sleep is a crucial factor for humans because it not only refreshes the mind and body, but it helps fight diseases and illnesses that may be coming onto the body, too. When the body lacks sleep, the brain cannot function properly, causing impaired actions, thoughts and memories. How many hours an individual needs to sleep every night varies based on their age; newborns to infants need a range of 12–17 hours of sleep per night; toddlers to preschoolers require a range of 10–14 hours of sleep per night; children to teenagers need a range of 8–11 hours; which leaves young adults and higher needing 7–9 hours per night.
Does not getting enough sleep affect our mental state? To answer shortly: yes. Sleeping is connected to our emotional and mental health, and the lack of sleep has clear ties to anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder and other conditions. The Sleep Foundation states, “Mental health disorders tend to make it harder to sleep well. At the same time, poor sleep, including insomnia, can be a contributing factor to the initiation and worsening of mental health problems”. Depression is a mental health condition that affects approximately 300 million worldwide, which is a mood disorder characterized by the feeling of hopelessness and sadness. According to the Sleep Foundation, “Around 75% of depressed people show symptoms of insomnia, and many people with depression also suffer from excessive daytime sleepiness and hypersomnia, which is sleeping too much”.
Anxiety affects 20% of adults and 25% of teenagers yearly. As stated by The Sleep Foundation, “Anxiety disorders have a strong association with sleep problems”. That is why high levels of fear can contribute to a state of hyperarousal — and hyperarousal has connections to insomnia. Falling asleep can become even harder when the individual has anticipatory anxiety, which is a source of panic and worry.
Bipolar disorder affects sleep exceedingly due to the emotional state that the individual may be in. An individual can experience moods that are either high or low, which can then highly impact their need for sleep. During the high periods, the person will feel less of a need for sleep, but during the low periods, they will feel the need to sleep unreasonably. This can go on even in the middle of stages of low and high periods. As noted by The Sleep Foundation, “Many people with bipolar disorder experience changes in their sleep patterns before the onset of an episode. There is also evidence that sleeping problems induce or worsen manic and depressive periods and that, because of the bidirectional relationship between bipolar disorder and sleep, treatment for insomnia can reduce the impact of bipolar disorder”.
Sleep not only affects our mental wellbeing, but also our physical health. Sleep plays a big role in how the immune system continues to fight infections; when someone is lacking sleep, their immune system starts to fail and even fending off common infections like colds and the flu can become difficult. According to The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, “Sleep is involved in healing and repair of your heart and blood vessels. Ongoing sleep deficiency is linked to an increased risk of heart disease, kidney disease, high blood pressure, diabetes and stroke”. Not getting enough sleep can also increase someone’s likelihood of becoming obese. Hormones have a direct correlation with your sleep too. As stated by the NIH, “Sleep helps maintain a healthy balance of the hormones that make you feel hungry (ghrelin) or full (leptin). When you don’t get enough sleep, your level of ghrelin goes up and your level of leptin goes down. This makes you feel hungrier than when you’re well-rested.” Who knew sleep could affect you this much?
Separate from these factors but also massively relevant to the topic of sleep are sleep disorders. A disorder is an illness that disrupts normal physical or mental functions. Different sleep disorders include insomnia, sleep apnea, restless leg syndrome (RLS) and narcolepsy.
Insomnia is classified as having difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep throughout the night. Studies show that about 25% of Americans struggle with insomnia every year. This is the most common sleep disorder.
Sleep apnea is when an individual experiences abnormal patterns of breathing while being asleep. There are various types of sleep apnea disorders, such as obstructive sleep apnea, central sleep apnea and complex sleep apnea syndrome. Mayo Clinic states, “Sleep apnea is a potentially serious sleep disorder in which breathing repeatedly stops and starts. If you snore loudly and feel tired even after a full night’s sleep,” you might have sleep apnea.” The most at-risk group for sleep apnea is overweight males above 40 years old; however, sleep apnea can affect anyone at any age.
Another common sleep disorder is restless legs syndrome (RLS), which is a type of sleep movement disorder that causes a discomforting sensation and an urge to move your legs while trying to fall asleep. RLS can also be hereditary if the individual develops this before the age of 40. It can also become dangerous because other risks can arise like spinal cord conditions, kidney failure, peripheral neuropathy and iron deficiency.
Narcolepsy is a condition characterized by extreme sleepiness during the day, which can cause you to fall asleep suddenly at any point during the day. Unfortunately, narcolepsy does not have a cure, making it a more difficult condition to tackle than most. According to Mayo Clinic, “Some people with narcolepsy experience automatic behavior during brief episodes of narcolepsy. For example, you may fall asleep while performing a task you normally perform, such as writing, typing, driving and you continue to perform that task while asleep. When you awaken, you can’t remember what you did, and you probably didn’t do it well”. Narcolepsy is one of the most difficult sleep conditions to cope with because it can cause serious issues at work or within one’s personal life. However, all of these sleeping conditions have an impact on one’s life.
Did you know the position you sleep in can have a direct correlation to your personality?
Sleep paralysis is another sleeping condition but less common than the others; less than 8% of people have dealt with it. The two most common groups of people that have experienced this are psychiatric patients and students. As stated by Stanford Health Care, “Sleep paralysis is a normal part of the REM sleep. However, it is considered to be a disorder when it occurs outside of REM sleep. It can occur in otherwise healthy people, as well as in those presenting symptoms of narcolepsy, cataplexy and hypnagogic hallucinations. When it occurs without narcolepsy, it is classified as Isolated Sleep Paralysis (ISP)”. Some common ways to help get a handle on sleep paralysis would be going to bed at the same time every night, avoiding any caffeine before sleeping and making sure that one’s sleeping arrangements are free of any distractions.
Did you know the position you sleep in can have a direct correlation to your personality? Sleeping on your back is one of the least common ways of sleeping but is connected to being more self-confident and having high expectations for yourself and others around you. Sleeping on your stomach can be associated with perfectionism, sensitivity to criticism and defensiveness. Research has also shown that people that do sleep on their stomachs feel little control in their lives. Side-sleeping is the most common position, whether it is on the right or left side. An individual who sleeps on their side is more open-minded, able to be more understanding and typically more relaxed. Sleeping on the right side shows ties to relying more on caffeine, while the left side is more likely to be educated and creative. The last sleeping position is the fetal position, more common in women than men. This position suggests you are more anxious, so the position offers a level of comfort. Fetal position sleepers are associated with being more organized, so these individuals have a tendency to overthink. Despite what research shows, listening to your body is the most important factor, Sleeping in a position that is best for you is always key!
How to get a better night's rest can vary on what works best for the individual. Some research shows reducing blue-light intake at night is effective for some, whereas taking melatonin supplements works better for others. Enhancing your sleep environment can help make your sleep patterns better, such as making the room’s temperature comfortable. Research has shown that 70℉ is typically the most comfortable room temperature, but again, that would depend on the individual. According to Healthline, “to optimize your bedroom environment, try to minimize external noise, light and artificial lights from devices like alarm clocks. Make sure your bedroom is a quiet, relaxing, clean and enjoyable place”. Taking a bath or shower before bed has shown a direct correlation with getting a better night’s rest due to it helping the individual fall asleep faster. A lot of people also opt for a cup of hot tea or a book to relax their mind.
Whether it is for one’s mental or physical health, sleep is extremely important to the individual to function to the fullest extent. Young adults and students have grown accustomed to the ideas that sleep is not as important for them at this point of their lives. Pulling all-nighters and getting minimum hours of sleep to study for an exam or play the newest Xbox game is the norm. But the long-term effects can be detrimental. Creating healthy needed sleep patterns can only better one’s mind and body.