The Counter-Intuitive Sleep Problem I Didn’t Know I Had

updated Sep 10, 2020
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A few weeks into self-quarantining, and my normal anxiety had all but disappeared. Instead, I had sunken into a depression, feeling so unmotivated, foggy, and tired I could hardly move my body off the couch some days. I’d always thought a bit of extra sleep was a healthy way to deal with just about any mental or physical ailment, so I’d frequently go to bed around 8 p.m. and, forgoing the alarm, wake up naturally around 8 a.m. 

But I still didn’t feel better—and the more I slept, the worse I seemed to feel. So I scheduled a tele-health visit with my psychiatrist, letting him know I was experiencing what seemed like depression for the first time. His first question: “How much are you sleeping?”

I learned something new that day. Turns out, excessive sleep isn’t just a byproduct of depression, but a contributor. There is such a thing as too much sleep.

Part of the reason sleep can impact mental health is physiological. Sanford Auerbach, MD, a sleep specialist at Boston Medical Center, says the neurotransmitters involved in depression overlap with the neurotransmitters involved in the regulation of sleep, and that too much REM sleep is known to affect depression. That’s why doctors sometimes use sleep deprivation as a short-term treatment for major depressive disorder. And many common antidepressant medications are known to suppress REM sleep, which Auerbach says is one part of why they work so well. 

“Sleep inertia” could be another part of the equation. Have you ever woken up groggy and irritable from a nap or from the “wrong” stage of sleep in the morning? Auerbach says an “off” sleep schedule can lead people to feel “terrible” when they wake up, which for me, felt a lot like depression. 

But it’s not all biological; there’s also a cognitive-behavioral aspect, according to Natalie Dattillo, a psychologist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. For me, hitting the hay early was a symbol of how much life had changed during the pandemic. I was bored and lonely, and it was just easier to go to sleep than exercise or dig for another show on Netflix. At the point you just give up and go to sleep when you’re not actually that tired, it’s a slippery slope. Dattillo says resigning to that sense of boredom and hopelessness can reinforce a sense of despair and apathy about life.

“We often have a tendency to interpret behaviors like this as problematic,” says Dattillo. “You might tell yourself a story that you sleep so much because your life is worthless and boring,  which could contribute to symptoms of depression.”

There’s no one-size-fits-all number when it comes to sleep—everyone’s body requires a unique amount to function. To determine how much sleep is right for you, Auerbach recommends asking yourself, “how much sleep would I need to get to function at my peak everyday?” For most people, that’s in the 7 to 8 hour range, but that can ebb and flow. For example, if you’re recovering from an illness or you notice you’re sleepy during the day, you might need more sleep at night. 

Another important part of waking up feeling motivated and energized is a normal sleep routine: going to bed and waking up around the same time each day. For me, the magic number is about eight hours of sleep. I didn’t feel like waking up before sunrise, so I stretched my bedtime to 11 p.m. Once my kids go to bed at 8, I read, catch up on a show, or go on a socially-distanced walk with a friend. By the time 10:30 rolls around, I’m tired and ready to begin my bedtime skincare routine, and I’m asleep by 11-ish. I naturally wake up around 7 a.m., a bit after the sun rises. (And conveniently, about thirty minutes before my kids roll out of bed.)

I thought I would feel more tired (and honestly, more depressed) sleeping less, but my psychiatrist’s suggestion was spot on. When I wake up in the morning, I feel more rested than when I slept for literally half the day, and I’m more energized than motivated than I have been in months. 

That’s probably the best part. Now that I don’t feel like I’m sleepwalking through life, I have the drive to walk several miles each day, cook nutritious meals, and practice self-care—all of which help to improve my mental health and overall well being. Who knew staying up later to binge on Netflix would be the first step?