The Effects of Sleep Deprivation on Mental Health: An Example

Mental health is Such a broad category and something that almost everyone fears facing, whether personally or with a friend or family member. If you break a leg or cut yourself, the problem is visible but with mental health of course, it is not! Although there are many diagnosed conditions, this post is derived from an example of a close family member of mine and highlights the real effects of sleep deprivation on mental health:

Josie is the eldest of 5 siblings, and has been the ear of their woes when required for many years, something not uncommon I suppose, yet these woes were never shared and kept locked away in the ‘emotional storage’ section of her brain. Her husband has undiagnosed OCD and for years she has gone along with the habits of buying things in bulk, filling the wardrobes with spare kettle’s, moving things from one place to another and making sure the lines are visible in the massive shag pile carpet. Surely this latter is a piss take right? No, it’s not, and whilst I do not share the technicalities for OCD in this post, it is something that would personally drive me to despair, undiagnosed or otherwise. Thinking about it, I had seen signs that these episodes played on her mind but could never see how much.

I often use the analogy that ‘My hard drive is full’ which basically means I cannot take any more information on board. In turn this generally means I cannot continue with the task, and being a bloke, I can certainly not do more than one task at once until I free up some hard drive space. We can free up hard drive space by doing a task that has been on our mind, or talking etc. but what happens if we don’t?

Well here is another analogy and back to Josie. If you blast water into a sponge at velocity, the water runs out fairly quickly, however, if you drip feed the sponge with water it will absorb far more until, as with the hard drive, it becomes full. This is what happens to our brain / minds but there is a difference… With the hard drive, you tend to know it’s full, so you delete some files or carry out the relevant task to free it up. With the sponge, if the water keeps flowing in, and some of the information is personal, secret or you don’t feel comfortable sharing it to ease the load, it will absorb and absorb until eventually it gives, and then it pours out. This is what happened to Josie and finally, pushed her to breaking point.

Years of taking other people’s problems on board (and not sharing her own), years of turning a blind eye to the traits of a partner living with OCD, and finally, a decision to euthanise her beloved dog had finally began to show on the exterior. With all this on her mind and a ‘Full sponge’, there is no wonder she couldn’t sleep properly, all giving rise to the following symptoms:

Mood swings

Irrational and wanting to throw everything away

Confusion

Jerking body movements

Fear and massive anxiety

Jokingly talking about suicide

A quick google and it’s a nervous breakdown. Perhaps? A nervous or mental breakdown is a term no longer used medically these days, but we all know it to be an issue with our mental health. Yet all the afore mentioned issues, symptoms and googled search never looked at Sleep deprivation!

Sleep Wellness - 6 Useful Tips

Turns out she hadn’t slept through worry and holding onto emotions for weeks, and her sleep had been terrible for years.

I once wrote a post on ways to improve sleep, which is worth a read if you are struggling, but this ‘close to home’ example really hones in on the real life effects of sleep deprivation and the direct impact it can have on our mental health. It is so obvious that the best cure for sleep deprivation is… Sleep! Of-course it is, but if you can’t get to sleep what do you do? Well if you are at the stage Josie was, you must let someone know in the first instance and if necessary, seek help from your local mental health team. In England a good place to start is through the NHS mental health helpline. In the case of Josie, she was so exhausted she couldn’t walk so it is likely that you won’t be able to do this alone.

To re-iterate, if you are worried that you are not getting enough sleep, read my post on ways to improve sleep, but also check out the following which is a paragraph taken from the Healthline website and has some great advice:

Prevention

The best way to prevent sleep deprivation is to make sure you get adequate sleep. Follow the recommended guidelines for your age group, which is 7 to 9 hours for most adults ages 18 to 64.

Other ways you can get back on track with a healthy sleep schedule include:

limiting daytime naps (or avoiding them altogether)

refraining from caffeine past noon or at least a few hours prior to bedtime

going to bed at the same time each night

waking up at the same time every morning

sticking to your bedtime schedule during weekends and holidays

spending an hour before bed doing relaxing activities, such as reading, meditating, or taking a bath

avoiding heavy meals within a few hours before bedtime

refraining from using electronic devices right before bed

exercising regularly, but not in the evening hours close to bedtime

reducing alcohol intake

If you continue to have problems sleeping at night and are fighting daytime fatigue, talk to your doctor. They can test for underlying health conditions that might be getting in the way of your sleep schedule”.

In summary: Sleep deprivation is real and so easy to miss when there is so much going on. Please try and give it the priority it deserves, and if there are issues in life stopping you sleeping, it is important to address it before the sponge overflows!

All the best… Darren

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