By Hilary Adams, PhD
8 min read
Take a moment to calculate how many hours of sleep you got each night this week. Are you sleeping eight to nine hours per night? If not, you are probably in “sleep debt,” and that can have negative effects on physical and mental health.
It’s not just you; research shows that teens and young adults across the country are not getting enough sleep. Experts agree that teens and young adults need eight to ten hours of restful sleep per night for optimal alertness. Unfortunately, about two thirds of teens and one third of young adults report getting too little sleep.
Sleep deprivation problems in this population are likely due to several factors:
- Changes in circadian rhythms that result in older adolescents and young adults staying up later, resulting in fewer hours of sleep per night
- Inconsistent sleep schedule due to “catching up” on sleep on the weekend
- Numerous responsibilities that limit time dedicated to sleep
- Electronic use before bed
Red flags of sleep deprivation include difficulty remaining alert during tasks (including dozing off in class) and falling asleep within five minutes of going to bed. Regardless of the cause, sleep deprivation has been shown to negatively affect adolescents’ and young adults’ mental health and result in psychological distress.
Most people realize that sleeping too little affects energy level and ability to concentrate, but did you know that getting sufficient sleep impacts mood as well? You may notice that you’re extra grumpy or emotional after a night with too little or poor quality sleep. The less sleep you get, the more stress can accumulate. Building stress makes the body release hormones that make it even harder to get to sleep the next night, which can lead to more worries about getting good rest. If this cycle continues, you’re likely to experience increasing problems getting to sleep at bedtime and subsequent mental health issues. In fact, long-term sleep deprivation is associated with negative mental health consequences. Research shows that teens and young adults who report frequent trouble sleeping are significantly more likely to report anxiety or depression compared to those who do not report sleep problems. Severe sleep deprivation can even lead to suicidal thoughts.
Additionally, less sleep than recommended can lead to difficulty with self-regulation, which is your ability to control your feelings, thoughts, and behaviors. Poor self-regulation can result in difficulty managing your own emotions and impulses, meaning you’re more likely to snap at your friends and family or make risky choices. Too little sleep has been associated with risk for substance use and problems with peers. Not getting enough sleep can even lead to symptoms characteristic of Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), like inability to sit still and difficulty focusing on tasks.
According to research, sleep problems beginning in adolescence or young adulthood are likely to persist and may result in unrelated long-term problems. Further, many mental health problems first arise in the late teens and early 20’s, including severe mental illness like schizophrenia. This pattern suggests that adolescents and young adults need to reduce risk of developing these issues by making good choices in regard to what they can control, and sleep is one such factor that also promotes resiliency. For those predisposed to mood issues, getting enough sleep is even more critical, since we know insufficient sleep is associated with greater risk of developing depression. Of course, increasing the amount of sleep you get each night is not going to “cure” your anxiety or depression symptoms. However, getting closer to the recommend amount of sleep can promote improved mood and better ability to manage stress.
Hilary Adams, PhD is a licensed clinical psychologist in private practice in downtown Los Angeles. She uses evidence-based practices with compassion and creativity to help children to young adults and their families improve their lives. She earned her BS in psychology at Tulane University, then her PhD in clinical psychology at Louisiana State University. Her internship and post-doctoral experiences took place at children’s hospitals, and she is currently affiliated with Children’s Hospital Los Angeles for a telehealth project as an autism expert. Her areas of expertise are Autism Spectrum Disorder and anxiety, and she has extensive experience assessing and treating other mental health concerns in early childhood to young adulthood. You can learn more about her at www.DrHilaryAdams.com and www.GoldenHourTherapy.com