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Effects of sleep deprivation on psychological wellbeing


Your central nervous system is the information highway of your body. Sleep is necessary to keep it functioning properly, but sleep deprivation / chronic insomnia can disrupt how your body usually sends information. 

During sleep, pathways form between nerve cells (neurons) in your brain that help you remember new information you’ve learned. Sleep deprivation leaves your brain exhausted, so it can’t perform its duties as well despite working harder. This has been demonstrated in brain imaging studies which show the brains of the sleep deprived desperately pumping energy into the prefrontal cortex, trying to overcome the effects of sleep deprivation

Lack of sleep causes memory problems

You may also find it more difficult to concentrate or learn new things. Lack of sleep causes sharp decrements in working memory. Without short-term memory a person can’t even hold a few digits of a telephone number in their mind, let alone perform any complex tasks. That’s why, when you’re sleep deprived, you keep going around in circles.  

Our long term memory is also affected. Sleep plays an important role in consolidating memories. While we sleep, our brain orders, integrates and makes sense of things that have happened to us. Not only that, but we seem to consolidate our learning while we sleep. Lack of sleep badly disrupts this process, meaning it’s difficult to lay down long-term memories and it’s harder to learn new skills.

Lack of sleep alters our attention span

At our best, humans have incredible powers of attention: we can distinguish one voice from many, track small, moving objects in a sea of visually distracting information and more. Lack of sleep, though, causes many of these precise powers to go downhill. Without enough sleep, we can’t pay attention to our senses as well as we would like. This partly results in that weird distracted feeling you get when tired.

After 36 hours without sleep, your ability to plan and coordinate your actions starts to go wrong. Tests show that this vital ability to decide when and how to start or stop tasks quickly goes awry with lack of sleep. Sleep deprived people easily get stuck in loops of activity or fogs of indecision. Either way it’s bad news.

Since the sleep deprived find it difficult to make plans or control how they start or stop actions, they have to fall back on the brain’s automated systems i.e. habits. Lack of sleep means we rely more on repeating the same actions in the same situations. Good news when it comes to our good habits, but bad news when it comes to the bad habits.

The signals your body sends may also come at a delay, decreasing your coordination skills and increasing your risks for accidents. You may also end up experiencing microsleep in the day. During these episodes, you’ll fall asleep for a few seconds or minutes without realizing it. Microsleep is out of your control and can be extremely dangerous if you’re driving. It can also make you more prone to injury due to trips and falls

Chronic insomnia / sleep deprivation also negatively affects your mental abilities and emotional state. You may feel more impatient or prone to mood swings. Studies show that chronic sleep debt can lead to anxiety and depression. It can lead to relationship difficulties.

Lack of sleep exacerbates chronic pain and other health problems

Sleep deprivation can also maintain or exacerbate additional health conditions such as chronic pain. For people with chronic pain, it’s a vicious cycle, lack of sleep enhances the perception of pain and increased pain causes lack of sleep

In extreme circumstances, if sleep deprivation continues long enough, you could start having hallucinations—seeing or hearing things that aren’t there. A lack of sleep can also trigger mania in people who have manic depression. Other psychological risks include: 

  • impulsive behavior
  • depression
  • paranoia
  • suicidal thoughts

Sleep issues in my clinic

My specialist area is helping people with long term health conditions such as chronic pain improve their quality and quantity of sleep. I have authored a book Sleeping with Pain and developed an audio package Sleep Well with Dr Sue

Often, I see people suffering with anxiety or stress which is affecting their sleep, and they fall into a vicious circle of anxiety/stress/lack of sleep/anxiety/stress/lack of sleep.

Other people I see have got into the habit of not sleeping and associating their bed with not being able to sleep, so can’t get to sleep when they go to bed and another vicious circle starts. Some have really poor sleep hygiene and that needs addressing.

If you need help to improve your sleep, contact me and I will develop a bespoke programme just for you based on the issues we identify at assessment. I use a wide range of evidence- based tools such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBTi) approach and hypnotherapy to improve the quality and quantity of sleep. 

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