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What's the link between depression and sleep?

Olivia, 45, had never been “much of a sleeper.


“I was one of those weird people,” she says with a laugh, “who’d go to bed at like, midnight, and be up and raring to go at 5 a.m. I’d run or do yoga or read or whatever, but once I got my four or five hours of sleep, I felt like I was fueled.”


After a car accident in 2019, one which left Olivia in hospital for three weeks and in rehabilitation services for a year, Olivia felt herself not only physically but emotionally scarred.


“I was diagnosed with depression in late 2020,” she explains. “The first and biggest indicator for me, believe it or not, wasn’t that I was sad or crying all the time, which I think a lot of people just believe depression is… for me, it was actually my sleep habits. For someone who never needed sleep, I just wanted to sleep, all the time.”


Experts have long linked depression and sleep problems. Some people with depression struggle with insomnia, which is the inability to sleep, while others, like Olivia, find themselves battling hypersomnia, which is excessive sleep.


Poor sleep has been said to create difficulties around the regulation of emotions; some people who struggle with sleeplessness may actually find themselves at risk of depression because of this. Daily stressors (like problems at work, anxieties over finances, or relationship issues) can magnify depressive symptoms and actually make sleeplessness (or oversleeping) even worse.


If you struggle with sleeplessness, either falling asleep or staying asleep, you likely feel tired throughout the day and may even experience other symptoms too, like irritability or physical discomfort. It’s important to let your doctor know so they can monitor you and give you individualized treatment options to restore good, restful sleep. (As an important side note, if you have signs of pauses in your breathing at night, you may want to see if you have sleep apnea – people with this condition are five times more likely to become depressed).


If you oversleep, do your best to get a regular night’s rest and at night only. Invest in an alarm clock that doubles as a “daytime” light, mimicking daylight – it will be easier for you to roll out of bed when it’s very bright in the room. Don’t give in to temptation and nap during the day; every time you feel tempted to nap, do something else, like exercise. Go to bed the same time each day (but not too early) and set your alarm for the same time each morning.


Insomnia or hypersomnia can be treated, just as depression can, but it’s not safe to assume that treatment for one will immediately cure the other. SSRIs and cognitive behavioral therapy, alone or combined, may be very effective for depression, but your sleep problems may need alternative therapies.

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