Sleep has always been an integral part of mental health, but now there is more reason than ever to consider an interrelation between the two. Recent studies, such as the one cited in a previous Psych Central article, have confirmed a strong correlation between depression and the prevalent disorder of sleep apnea. There are also connections between sleep apnea and other aspects of mental health, as well as reasons why the psychology field should familiarize itself with the symptoms of this disorder.

Though commonly mistaken for mere snoring, sleep apnea is a serious medical condition characterized by brief pauses in breath during sleep. The cessation of breathing prevents the sleeper from inhaling oxygen and can lead to a multitude of health complications that range from insomnia and high blood pressure to tumor growth and a higher cancer risk. Moreover, sleep apnea is not a rarity. In America alone, over 14 million people suffer from sleep apnea but do not know it.

The pauses in breathing, which are called “apneas,” are abrupt and intrusive, albeit brief. Those with sleep apnea will often wake for moments before returning to sleep, and these ruptures in their sleep cycle can compromise their mood and executive functioning. To the extent that it goes untreated, sleep apnea will often lead to a worsening of: concentration, memory, learning, and processing information.

Sleep apnea can lead to other serious mental and behavioral complications. Anxiety is commonly experienced alongside sleep apnea in the form of both “nocturnal panic attacks” and generalized uneasiness. As a corollary to this relation, the co-occurrence of sleep apnea and anxiety has also been found to markedly diminish as it is managed through medical treatment.

One more personal area of people’s lives that sleep apnea can affect is sex. Though often treated as something more lighthearted, the snoring that can accompany sleep apnea frequently impedes intimacy. At times, it can become so problematic as to result in spouses sleeping in separate rooms. In addition, sexual dysfunction is a common side effect, although it is not clear whether this is manifest of co-occurring mood instability or of sleep apnea in and of itself.

The link between sleep apnea and mental health is not necessarily new, and many psychologists have concerned themselves with sleep health for a long time. However, there are also those in the mental health field that remain unfamiliar with sleep apnea and its symptoms. Individuals that suffer from sleep apnea often do not know it, as they cannot self-diagnose in the unconscious state of sleep. Without a proper diagnosis, they will not receive treatment and their mental health symptoms will confound both them and their healthcare providers.

Depression, anxiety and other behavioral problems are not always indicative of sleep apnea, but they often are. As long as therapists and psychologists know the symptoms, they will have one more diagnostic utility in their toolkit. If a patient is not suffering from sleep apnea, there is still a diagnosis and a treatment that will help them. If they are suffering from sleep apnea, then they can avail themselves to the proper kind of therapy, for their mental health is only a symptom.

Man with sleep apnea photo available from Shutterstock