Sleep Apnea and Mental Health

People with sleep apnea are more likely to have depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) than people without the sleep disorder. They also are more likely to use mental health services but feel like the services are not working. Even people with psychosis and schizophrenia have a higher risk of sleep apnea.1

Doctors believe that sleep apnea is linked to mental health issues because it causes mini-awakenings throughout the night. This lack of deep sleep and lack of oxygen upsets brain chemicals (neurotransmitters and stress hormones) that help control emotions, concentration, and thinking.2

Living better with sleep apnea

It is possible to take steps to improve your mental health and your sleep apnea at the same time. It may take some trial and error to find which combination of lifestyle changes, devices, and sleep habits work for you.

Get treated for both conditions

Studies show that mental health often gets better just by treating sleep apnea with a continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machine. However, some people must be treated for both conditions to find long-term healthy sleep. For CPAP to work, you will need to use the machine every night, all night, often for months, to lift your depression. Getting a good night’s sleep will likely improve concentration levels and mood and reduce daytime sleepiness. But, you may still need a non-sedating antidepressant to treat your depression.2,3

Know yourself

You can learn what makes your sleep apnea worse, or better, by paying attention to your body. You may discover that you need to cut out alcohol, nicotine, or cold medicine completely. You will need to wear your CPAP machine each night and learn to sleep in a position that is comfortable with the mask. Self-awareness can be the first step in taking control of your symptoms.4

Exercise

Regular exercise can help improve your mood, release stress, and help you sleep better at night. Exercise releases endorphins that improve your mood and energy levels. It also helps you maintain a healthy weight. Even if you do not lose weight, studies show that exercise improves sleep apnea symptoms, which improve mood. Getting outside in the sunlight can also help make your mood better and improve your sleep.3,4

Good sleep habits

A combination of limiting daytime naps and good nighttime sleep habits can make you less sleepy and more productive during the day. This can make you feel more accomplished and improves your safety by reducing daytime sleepiness.

Cognitive behavioral therapy

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) for depression helps you learn different ways of thinking about and acting on the feelings that lead to depression. CBT helps you learn the routines and thought processes that will help you improve your mood. CBT can treat both depression and insomnia.3

Increase social connections

People with sleep apnea sometimes isolate themselves at home because they feel tired and depressed. This is a reasonable reaction to a lack of sleep but isolation makes depression worse. Try to break the isolation by connecting with others online, through a hobby, sports, or volunteer work.

Educate yourself

The more you understand about sleep apnea and your mental health, its treatments, and your triggers, the more you can advocate for yourself and educate others. Consider attending a conference to learn more about the connection between mental health and sleep apnea and the latest treatments.

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Written by: Jessica Johns Pool | Last reviewed: June 2020