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6 Strategies to Unlock Good Sleep While Managing Depression

Depression and sleep are connected more than you realize. Examining your sleep habits is a good place to start addressing your depressive symptoms.

Taylor Leamey Senior Writer
Taylor Leamey writes about all things wellness, specializing in mental health, sleep and nutrition coverage. She has invested hundreds of hours into studying and researching sleep and holds a Certified Sleep Science Coach certification from the Spencer Institute. Not to mention the years she spent studying mental health fundamentals while earning her bachelor's degrees in both Psychology and Sociology. She is also a Certified Stress Management Coach.
Expertise Sleep, Mental Health, Nutrition and Supplements Credentials
  • Certified Sleep Science Coach, Certified Stress Management Coach
Taylor Leamey
6 min read
Woman sitting on the edge of her bed because she can't sleep.
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The relationship between sleep and depression won't look the same for everyone. For some, the only thing they want to do is sleep, while other people find that their depression sparks a bout of insomnia that they can't seem to shake. 

Quality sleep is essential if you're living with depression. Not sleeping enough can exacerbate depressive symptoms, making it difficult to cope with daily life. Prioritizing your sleep quality is one way to take proactive steps to mitigate the effects of your condition. Use these six practical tips to maximize your sleep and manage your depression. 

What is depression?

To understand how sleep and depression are related, we need to establish what depression is. Depression, also called major depressive disorder, is a common mood condition affecting how someone feels, thinks and behaves. It's not just feeling sad; depression is marked by persistent negative feelings and losing interest in activities you enjoy. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, approximately 21 million US adults had at least one major depressive episode in 2021. 

The common signs of depression include but are not limited to: 

  • Depressed mood
  • Diminished interest in activities 
  • Fatigue or feeling like they have no energy 
  • Feelings of worthlessness
  • Inability to concentrate
  • Altered sleep patterns

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) is what mental health professionals use to diagnose conditions. Of the list the DSM includes, a person must have at least five of the symptoms during the same two-week period to be diagnosed with depression

According to recent research investigating positive coping strategies and mental health outcomes, quality sleep helped combat depressive symptoms. That's right, being intentional about your rest can help you improve your mental state. Let's dig a little further. 

What's the connection between sleep and depression? 

Sleep and depression have a bi-directional connection, meaning they feed on each other. Depression can cause sleep troubles, and not sleeping well can contribute to heightened depression symptoms. One of the first signs of depression is sleep disruption

Depression can make it hard to sleep

When someone is dealing with depression, their sleep is altered. One study found that 90% of people with major depressive disorder also develop a sleep disorder. 

Sleep disruptions due to depression can present in two main ways: hypersomnia or insomnia. Hypersomnia is difficulty staying awake during the day because you feel tired, even if you slept at night. Insomnia is having a hard time falling asleep and staying asleep. With both types of sleep disturbances, any sleep you manage to get with depression isn't the best quality. You get less restorative sleep while depressed. 

We need sleep to regulate mood

While we sleep, our amygdala, the brain's emotional processing center, can regulate and review the day's events. When you're sleep-deprived, the amygdala is overactive and triggers negative emotional responses to stimuli. You're reactive to things that normally would roll off your back. This causes your mood to plummet, making it harder to cope with daily stress. 

Woman staring at the clock because she can't fall asleep.
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Quality sleep can help combat depression 

Depression is a serious mood disorder that can severely affect someone's ability to function in everyday life. It's not something you need to struggle through; help is available to you. The gold-standard treatment for depression is cognitive behavioral therapy, but medications are also often prescribed in addition to therapy. 

That said, you can't just treat your depression and expect sleep to follow.

"It's important to find ways to improve disrupted sleep to help recover from depression and improve mood, concentration, memory, irritability and other uncomfortable experiences related to depression," said Jill Harkavy-Friedman, who holds a PhD in Clinical Psychology. Harkavy-Friedman is the senior vice president of research at the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention

If you don't address sleep issues, the treatment for depression is less impactful as you're not giving your body the tools it needs to function properly. Additionally, depressive episodes are more likely to return if you don't make meaningful changes in your sleep habits. You have to address both sides of things. 

6 tips for sleeping better with depression

It can be challenging to break the cycle of poor sleep and depression. Improving your sleep won't just benefit your mental health, it ensures your physical health is on track too. Remember, with all of these tips, consistency is critical. 

1. Establish a bedtime routine

Before you do anything, take a second to look at your behaviors surrounding sleep. Establishing a bedtime routine can help build a structure your body will get used to.

 "Have a set time for preparing for bed where you focus on basic hygiene (face, teeth, body, etc.), separating from screens, and creating a sleep environment by turning down the lights and temperature," Harkavy-Friedman said. Doing the same thing each night will help your body relax enough to fall asleep.

You should also avoid overstimulation for at least a few hours before climbing into bed. "Try engaging in activities that make you feel relaxed such as focusing on breathing, relaxation apps, quiet music or a book that isn't too mentally stimulating," Harkavy-Friedman added. 

2. Spend time outside

Think of spending time outside as a two-for-one special. Not only does it boost your mental health, but it also can help you sleep at night. 

One suspected contributing factor to depression is low serotonin levels, the neurotransmitter that regulates mood. It's often referred to as the "feel good" chemical. Going outside is one way to naturally boost how much serotonin you have in your brain. Studies have found that sunlight can increase the body's serotonin production

Going outside will also help improve your sleep by "resetting" your internal clock, which promotes normal sleep patterns. Melatonin is the hormone that helps regulate our circadian rhythm, known as the sleep-wake cycle. Our brains produce melatonin in response to darkness to facilitate sleep. It's all too easy to throw off this natural process. Going outside and reminding your body when it's light out can help restore balance. 

3. Use naps strategically

If your depression sleep disturbances present as hypersomnia, it's easy to fall into a pattern of frequent, long naps. While naps aren't bad, you should assess why you're napping. Is it a way to cope or escape symptoms? Or do you just need a chance to step away and relax for a bit? 

If you feel like you need a nap, take one. Naps can help boost your mood and concentration for the rest of the day. Just make sure you know why you're napping. It's also recommended to avoid naps in the late afternoon and limit them to no more than 20 minutes.

4. Exercise regularly 

I know what you're thinking: Why is exercise the solution to everything? I'm not just adding this tip to make you exercise; it can help you fight depression and sleep better at night. 

There are a ton of benefits associated with exercise for mental health. Your mood increases, your depression or anxiety symptoms decrease and your confidence increases. Exercise helps you sleep by reducing your stress levels and tiring you out. 

In both cases, intense workouts aren't required to reap the benefits. Walking, yoga and dancing are all forms of exercise that will boost your mental health and make it easier to sleep at night. 

Woman walking her dog in a park.
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5. Limit alcohol 

Depression and alcohol have a delicate relationship, as many people with depression also have trouble with drinking. While it offers short-lived relief, alcohol makes depressive symptoms worse and makes antidepressants less effective

Regardless of whether you have a problem with alcohol, it's still essential to moderate how much you drink at night. A nightcap can also further impair your ability to sleep. Alcohol is a central nervous system depressant, which makes it easier to fall asleep. As the effects of alcohol wear off on the excitatory nerve cells in the brain, you wake up, compromising your sleep quality and amplifying sleep disorders.  

6. Try cognitive behavioral therapy

Therapy is the first line of treatment for depression. According to Harkavy-Friedman, cognitive behavioral therapy works for many people with sleep troubles. Cognitive behavioral therapy works on the concept that everything we think, feel and do depends on each other. If one of them is off track, it throws off everything else. 

Cognitive behavioral therapy can help you address sleep behaviors and habits that may keep you awake. While also digging into any underlying thoughts that are contributing. 

"If sleep difficulties persist, have a conversation with your health clinician about other alternatives, such as medications," Harkavy-Friedman added. 

Too long; didn't read?

Sleep and depression are connected. Sleeping well with depression is difficult, and not sleeping enough will make depression symptoms worse. If left unchecked, they can create a negative cycle that will impact your life. 

That doesn't mean you can't sleep well with depression. Targeting your sleep problems is one of the most accessible ways to address depression. Remember, you don't have to do it on your own. Online therapy options, like BetterHelp or TalkSpace, are often more affordable and flexible than traditional therapy. 

The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.