That Time I Thought I Was Losing My Mind: The Effects Of Sleep Deprivation On Mental Health

Work. Dance. Tutor. Study. Repeat. Work. Dance. Tutor. Study. Repeat. That was my life for 18 months when I decided to obtain my masters degree via distance learning. I comforted myself in the knowledge that it would not be forever and to be honest, I was too badmind to quit, but there came a point where I really thought I was walking a tightrope with regards to my mental health. Although my education was my priority (money was not to be spent in vain), all the activities of my lifestyle prior to school remained part of my day-to-day activities. I was sleep deprived to say the least, depending on approximately three hours of sleep from day to day.

Sleep is crucial for health and wellbeing as it allows our brains to recharge and our bodies to feel rejuvenated. Prolonged sleep deficiency is not only linked to increased risk of non-communicable diseases (NCDs) like diabetes and heart disease but also effects on memory, mood and even judgment. Stress has a direct negative effect on sleep pattern. However, there are two types of stress – eustress and distress. Both of these encourage the release of cortisol (stress hormone). Eustress is considered the good stress, the one responsible for that ‘carpe diem’ attitude. Conversely, distress is oftentimes referred to as bad stress, usually associated with varying levels of anxiety. Therefore, one of the main effects of sleep deprivation is the continuous release of the cortisol from the adrenal glands in times of prolonged stress. This alone has been linked to mental illness.

No matter how much you try, you cannot make up for lost sleep. It was fun to try though. When I completed my studies I was elated of course, but I had to take lots of time to readjust. Initially, I felt so uneasy being able to just get home and do anything I wanted, including nothing since I was so accustomed to working late night to early morning – sometimes falling asleep mid-sentence on an assignment to then get ready to do everything all over again the next day. After all of this, I could finally reclaim that time.

How much sleep is enough though? Many factors affect this, including individual needs and also needs of an age group. According to the National Sleep Foundation, with respect to age, the recommended sleep period for adults between 25 and 60 years is six to nine hours, seven to eight being optimum. I know right, only in a perfect world. Based on your level of physical activity too (which should be at least moderate for most, if not all) rest should be high on the list of priorities so that muscles have the opportunity to rebuild after being used. There always seems to be so much to do and so little time, but perhaps that’s where fiercely consistent prioritisation would come in.  

And now I have a masters degree, like many other people, but the weight of that statement holds differently for everyone. The time between completing my programme and graduating was passed being jubilant, yes, but also catching up and being able to wholeheartedly do things I may have missed out on before. And then there was also the time between receiving my certificate and participating in the commencement ceremony itself, so much so, that the final well of emotion overcame me on the actual day I would walk across the stage (a moment I can always see repeatedly because a dear friend recorded it for me). Crossing that stage represented so much for me. All the sleepless nights, the spare time used to ‘just’ finish this discussion or read on that upcoming topic, the joy of knowing I was one step closer to creating the life I imagined and deserved based on getting closer to my purpose – I felt it all on that stage – the highs and lows that brought me to that present time, and the gratefulness for all involved, but also the belief I have in myself and the faith tested in God to bring me through it.

You can do all the things, but not all things at the same time. A valuable take away point is how much I started taking self-care for granted because I just couldn’t seem to make the time for it. Everything and everybody else was a priority. In hindsight, that was quite an injustice as I wasn’t my best for anything or anyone. Alas, as you learn you grow and I’m definitely thankful for the experience not just for what I learnt academically, but also what I learnt about myself in that time and how it has prepared me for other seasons in my life. So ‘take heart’ and comfort in the fact that rough times don’t last, persevere and grow through what you go through because at the end of the day we are all conquerors.

The WE Team

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