The Link Between Mental Health & Sleep in Teenagers

7 min read

Last Modified 19 March 2021 First Added 19 March 2021

By Lewis Ridley

Mental health and sleep are interlinked. They influence each other and, in some cases, can cause problems, especially in teens. For teens, or for the parents/guardians of a teen, understanding how sleep and mental health interact can be beneficial. Especially when new data recorded by Dreams and YouGov identifies that almost three-quarters of teens say better sleep means a better mood, while four in ten so say it makes them feel more confident.

This article will aim to explain how mental health and sleep link together, looking into depression, anxiety, ASD, and possible solutions.

1. Depression and sleep

Girl sitting on a chair alone

Depression and sleep are heavily related topics. Both can impact each other, especially during our teenage years.

In fact, of the many children and teenagers who suffer from depression and depressive symptoms, it’s been estimated that 90% of them also suffer from sleep problems. Additionally, 70% of all depressed people show symptoms of insomnia.

It was widely believed in the past that sleep problems were a result of depression. The negative thoughts from depression would cause worry and anxiety, preventing sleep. The preventing of sleep would facilitate tiredness and further negative thinking, creating a feedback loop that would only promote further insomnia and depression.

However, a new body of evidence is emerging suggesting sleep can cause depression. However, it can be difficult to identify cause and effect, thus concluding that depression and sleep problems are mutually reinforcing.

And there’s no doubt that the pandemic has played a major role too. In a study by Dreams, on the pandemic sleeping habits of more than 2000 teenagers, it was uncovered that:

  • 28% of teens suffered from sleep problems
  • 33% took action to aid their sleeping,  including the use of sleeping pills, CBD, & counselling.
  • 30% of teens feel more anxious or stressed since the pandemic started
  • 17% of teens stated their mental health detiororated

In a quote on the matter for The Sleep Matters Club, Clinical Psychologist, Dr. Julie Smith states that:

“Teen routines have been overhauled throughout the pandemic. They’ve had no control on their schooling, let alone the wider concerns many have felt towards their education and prospects in the long-term. Coupled with increased isolation, and an over-reliance on tech, it’s not a surprise that teens have found it hard to switch off, wind down and get to sleep.

“This is concerning, especially as their routines have been overhauled again. Sleep is a really important part of overall good health and mental wellbeing, especially for young people. It’s how our bodies rationalise our experiences and enable us to return to a calm, more meditative state.” 

2. Anxiety and sleep

Women looking fearfully out the window

Anxiety and sleep are also linked. If your teen is displaying signs of anxiety, it could start to impact their sleeping habits.

Approximately 25% of teenagers are affected by anxiety. This disorder involves excessive fear and worry and impacts the day-to-day of those who have it. Anxiety disorders come in all shapes and sizes, including General Anxiety Disorder (GAS), phobias, OCD, and more.

The link between anxiety and sleep problems, especially in teens, is particularly strong. The worry and fear that anxiety manifests can result in hyperarousal, contributing to wakefulness and, thus, the inability to fall asleep. As well as hyperarousal, the anticipation of sleep may cause greater worry in someone with anxiety, making sleeping extra difficult.

Of course, the relationship can be bi-lateral. Poor sleep has been found to cause anxiety in “high-risk” individuals and insomnia could be an aggravating variable to developing further anxiety-related issues.

If your teen is displaying anxiety symptoms or you’re concerned they’re disorder is impacting their ability to achieve a good night’s rest, consulting your GP would be the best course of action.

3. Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD)

ASD covers a wide range of neurodevelopmental disorders that impact communication and social interaction. They are conditions that are usually diagnosed in childhood and adolescents but can persist into adult life.

It’s been found that younger individuals with ASD have a high prevalence of sleep problems, including insomnia. These sleeping issues can also create a negative feedback loop that results in a worse quality of life for individuals with this condition.

If your teen suffers from ASD, helping them improve their sleep can drastically improve their lifestyle. It can prevent daytime sleepiness and is often included in treatment and care. In all cases, speak to your GP if you need any advice.

What solutions are available?

In the case of anxiety and depression, there are a few things you can experiment with in order to alleviate your symptoms and improve your mental health.

Some require a more active approach whereas others require the intervention of a trained professional – as is the case with therapy.

Here are a few solutions you can try that can help with your mental health and improve your sleep.

1. Cognitive Behaviour Therapy

A mug with the word begin on the front

Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) is an effective form of therapy revolving around talking and discussion. It aims to examine pathways of thinking and eliminate negative, limiting thoughts that a patient may be experiencing.

CBT is a technique often used on insomnia, as well as depression and anxiety. CBT can be used to remove any negative thoughts your teen could be having before bed in regard to sleep. Giving them the confidence to fall asleep and get a good night’s rest.

CBT-I (the variation of CBT focused on insomnia) has a good history of tackling sleep-related issues. By challenging thoughts and displacing negative emotions resulting from poor sleep, your teen can start to reduce their symptoms and achieve solid rest.

2. Healthy sleep habits

Simple changes to your teen’s sleeping habits and routines can have monumental effects on their mental health. By simply altering a few aspects, they can feel happier and feel more energetic as a result.

Here are a few ways to improve basic sleep habits to help alleviate mental health and sleep problems:

  • Set a bedtime and wake time.
  • Drink plenty of water upon waking and throughout the day (2 litres is usually the average)
  • Avoid caffeine before bed (and alcohol if your teen is of age)
  • Dim lights and remove electronic devices (with the exception of sleep-benefiting tech)
  • Get regular light exposure during the morning and daytime.
  • Improve the comfort of your teen’s bed and sleeping environment.

By applying a few of these techniques, your teen can help themselves and improve both their sleep and mental health.

3. Relaxation techniques

Person meditating on the beach

Relaxation techniques are also a good way to combat negative thoughts. Methods such as meditation can help to calm your mind and prepare yourself for sleep. Simply listening to your breath and closing of your mind is a good place to start.

4. Lifestyle changes

General lifestyle changes such as getting more exercise can also benefit your sleep and allay mental health issues in teens.

For mental health, exercise has been seen to have a positive impact, reducing anxiety and stress. Even taking a brisk walk can improve your mood and increase mental awareness.

For sleep, moderate to vigorous exercise can increase sleep quality in teens and reduce the amount of time they lie awake in bed. Additionally, exercise can help to decrease daytime sleepiness.

If you or your teenager is looking to alleviate mental health problems or improve their sleep, getting exercise into their daily routine could help tremendously.

Closing thoughts

Mental health and sleep are heavily linked according to research, and this link also branches out to teenagers.

Sleep can influence mental health problems and mental health problems can influence sleep – the relationship tends to be bilateral. Therefore, acting in ways to combat both aspects can be beneficial.

However, if you or your teen is suffering from either mental health or sleep problems, your first port of call is your GP. They can provide support and give you professional advice on what to do.

About the author