Depression and Insomnia

We all know what it is like after a bad night’s sleep. You wake up feeling groggy and 10 years older. No matter how many cups of coffee you down, the way you sleep stays with you for the rest of your day. In a fast paced, modernized society, a good night’s sleep can be hard to come by. For those with depression, sleep is a battle rarely won. While most of us hear that those with depression tend to sleep more than the average person, often we do not hear about the people who struggle with depression and insomnia.


According to WedMD, the medical definition for insomnia is the inability to fall or stay asleep. Since the quality of our sleep is a vital determinant of the quality of your waking hours, insomnia can be quite debilitating to one’s health and daily life. In addition to anxiety and intense emotional burdens, it is well documented that insomnia is often linked to someone’s sleep reactivity, also known as the tendency and to have disturbances in their sleep. One of the common factors that determine someone’s sleep reactivity is something that is often out of our control: stress. Generally speaking, sleep reactivity is not a characteristic unique to insomnia and could be associated and indicative of other disorders. For instance, studies have shown that insomnia has extremely high comorbidity and tend to co-occurrence with depression. If sleep reactivity can be a predictor of insomnia, what if it can be a predictor of depression? While there are lots of studies that confirm the association between sleep reactivity and insomnia, a lab in Michigan set to find more about the link between sleep reactivity and depression.


At the University of Michigan, a study by Dr. Vargas looked to find the link between sleep reactivity and depressive symptoms. To do this, he conducted a survey on 2,250 participants with insomnia and asked questions about their sleep disturbances and mental health. When he studied the results, Dr. Vargas found that the association between depressive symptoms and sleep reactivity was statistically significant. Therefore, the results of his data were not just caused by chance, there is an association between the way you sleep and how you feel. So, what exactly is the link? Dr. Vargas thinks that stress plays a big part. A lot of what keeps us up at night is the stress of our working hours. Stress is a universal emotion, but it impacts us all differently. Compared to an average individual, people with depression tend to have more stress and fewer tools to cope with it. Thus, they are more likely to have higher sleep reactivity and not get enough sleep. This would generate additional stress and create a vicious cycle of reciprocal sleep debt.


Before sleep reactivity is utilized for assessing risk for depression, Dr. Vargas thinks that there should be more research done. He believes that insomnia, a disorder closely associated with sleep reactivity and depression, could have been the real cause of the strong association between sleep reactivity and depressive symptoms. This means that the reason sleep reactivity may be more strongly associated with depression symptoms purely because of its strong ties to insomnia. Thus, we need more research before sleep reactivity can be accurately used to predict and treat depression. Evidently, sleep is a big factor in how we manage stress. With more time and sleep-focused research, scientists like Dr. Vargas can look forward to utilizing the link between sleep and other stress-rooted disorders to provide earlier detection and treatment. 


Lawrence Robinson, Melinda Smith, M.A., and Robert Segal, M.A.  (2018) Insomnia. (n.d.)


Vargas, I., Friedman, N. P., & Drake, C. L. (2015). Vulnerability to stress-related sleep disturbance and insomnia: Investigating the link with comorbid depressive symptoms. Translational Issues in Psychological Science, 1(1), 57–66.

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