If you want to take care of your mental health, not getting enough sleep is a terrible idea. Whether it’s a few nights of trying to get by on less sleep than usual, or you’re pulling an all-nighter, choosing to not get enough sleep is choosing to make your mental health worse and choosing to experience the consequences of poor mental health.
To start with, not getting enough sleep causes cognitive impairment (it makes you dumb). However, it’s not just dumb like you can’t remember the date the Ottoman Empire conquered Constantinople (May 29th, 1453), but dumb like somebody who drank too much Coors Light. So not only are you going to lose at Jeopardy, you’re also going to lose at operating vehicles. An Australian study on worker safety and sleep deprivation found that staying awake for 17 hrs can result in a cognitive and motor performance decline equivalent to somebody with a blood alcohol content of 0.05. If you decide to pull an all-nighter and then hop behind the wheel, you’re driving with an impairment equivalent to somebody with a blood alcohol content of 0.1, above the legal limit for intoxication in many countries.
Beyond making you a dangerous car driver, (or Exxon Valdez oil tanker pilot, or Chernobyl plant operator–just two of the numerous disasters linked to sleep deprivation), it’ll also make you terrible at handling some of the most complex machinery in your life: your emotions. Sleep helps to decrease activity in the amygdala, theoretically in response to emotional experiences from earlier that day. So if you’ve had a bad day, staying up, ruminating about it, and writing angry emails isn’t going to help. You can actually sleep it off. That beautiful night of sleep is also going to help with handling your emotional responses to what you experience in the day ahead as well. Sleep deprived brains show more activity than well-rested brains reacting to disturbing images. If you’re somebody that already struggles with anxiety and fear, then poor sleep is likely to make it even more difficult to handle those emotions. The less you sleep, the more sensitive and reactive you become. As we’ve shared on this blog before, reacting compulsively to emotions we don’t like leads to even more of those emotions, which leads to more compulsions, and then even more of those emotions, continuing a cycle of progressively worsening mental health. With that in mind, sleep is a great way to help prevent the types of reactions that fuel mental illness.
Problems with sleep are also going to lead to an increased risk of depression. Insomnia will make you 20 times more likely to develop a panic disorder. It’s also going to make healthy decisions in other areas of your life more difficult, particularly in areas where mental health and physical health have a close, reciprocal relationship, like with food. Numerous studies (like this one about sleep deprivation interfering with higher-order decision making, or this one linking sleep loss and obesity, or this one showing a change in food purchasing behavior after sleep loss) highlight the effects that poor sleep can have on eating healthy. They also hint at the complications we probably encounter in other areas of our life when making decisions after a lack of sleep. You might think you’re not going to make terrible decisions when you’re sleep deprived–you can remember when you’ve pulled all-nighters before and came up with amazing ideas! Well, that’s totally something a sleep-deprived person would say. Studies show that people experiencing poor sleep or sleep deprivation have less objective insight into their cognitive performance as their sleep loss increases.
You might be able to handle being a bit dumber in the short-term or crashing a few oil tankers, but missing out on sleep may also have long-term effects. Sleep helps your brain flush out toxins that build up during the day. Chronically missing out on sleep means the brain doesn’t get to clean house and that could lead to neurological disorders later in life like Alzheimer’s.
This article only covers a tiny sliver of the evidence detailing the vast quantity of problems that can result from not getting enough sleep. I’d include more, but you should really take a nap.