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How Sleep Can Affect Your Mental Health and Improve Your Quality of Life

Sleep issues can lead to greater irritability and affect physical stamina, cause weight gain, and lead to challenges in managing other chronic health conditions.
Sleep issues can lead to greater irritability and affect physical stamina, cause weight gain, and lead to challenges in managing other chronic health conditions.

Sleep has a fundamental role in shaping our overall health and quality of life – helping to regulate hormones, bolster immunity, and enhance cognitive function and emotional resilience. Yet, people often overlook sleep issues as a significant health concern.

A study from the National Sleep Foundation found a direct correlation between sleep and mental health conditions. People who reported sleep issues also reported greater levels of depression and anxiety.

Military veterans experience sleep challenges at a disproportionate rate. In its most recent Warrior Survey*, Wounded Warrior Project® (WWP) found that more than 80% of the warriors surveyed self-reported sleep problems, making it the most common health concern for WWP warriors. 

Physical and mental health challenges can exasperate sleep issues. Warriors who have head-related trauma or suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, anxiety, or chronic pain often struggle more with getting good-quality sleep. A majority of the warriors who self-reported sleep issues in WWP's Warrior Survey said they also had PTSD. Sleep problems, including insomnia, often occur after a trauma. 

Why is Sleep Important? 

"Sleep helps the brain and body recharge, like plugging in your phone. It allows the mind to settle and process information you've taken that day," said Erin Fletcher, Psy.D., director of Warrior Care Network® at WWP. "A lack of consistent, quality sleep hinders this, and your brain and body will not work as they should."

Going without sleep or having poor-quality sleep can also lead to increased stress levels, heightened irritability, PTSD flare-ups, and suicidal ideation. "For someone who may be dealing with things like trauma, depression, or anxiety, it becomes a vicious cycle since falling or staying asleep can lead to them being more on edge or anxious, which further inhibits sleep," said Dr. Fletcher.

Sleep issues affect physical stamina, cause weight gain, and lead to potential challenges in managing other chronic health conditions. For instance, lack of sleep can cause your brain to release cortisol, a stress hormone that signals your body to hold on to fat. 

How Much Sleep is Enough? 

On average, people spend about one-third of their lives sleeping. Although each person is different, seven hours of sleep daily is ideal for most adults, said Dr. Fletcher, but it's a challenging goal for many veterans.

According to WWP's Warrior Survey, more than 78% of warriors surveyed reported fewer than the recommended seven hours of sleep per night – more than double the general U.S. population. On average, WWP warriors reported sleeping just over five hours per night.

There is also a significant link between sleep and performance. According to the Sleep Foundation, the economic impact of insufficient sleep and work productivity in the U.S. is more than $411 billion when looking at workplace errors and accidents.

Does an Hour Make Much of a Difference?

An hour may not seem like much time, but if you only get a few hours of shut-eye a night, 60 minutes is enough to wreak havoc, especially if there are changes to night and day.

Light strongly influences the body’s circadian rhythm, the internal clock that dictates your sleep-wake pattern. As a result, many people need help to adjust when changing time zones or during daylight saving time, for instance.

Dr. Fletcher recommends making gradual adjustments about a week in advance to minimize the effects and feel well-rested when the time change occurs.

  • Start shifting your routine to go to bed 15 minutes early. Increase by 15 more minutes every few nights.

  • Prioritize daylight exposure. Getting outside can help your body acclimate to the time change.

  • If you feel sleepy when you lose an hour, take a 15-minute nap in the early afternoon.

  • Avoid sleeping longer when you gain an hour. Try to acclimate to the time zone by sticking to your routine. 

How Can I Get Better Sleep?

Turning of mobile devices and other electronics can help prepare your body for better sleep.
Turning off mobile devices and other electronics can help prepare your body for better sleep.

Dr. Fletcher offers these additional tips for good-quality sleep: 

  • Prioritize sleep. “Be intentional about going to sleep. We hear more and more about ‘bedtime procrastination,’ where people get pulled into something else, like binge-watching a favorite TV show or scrolling social media. Your routine is off, and you become more fatigued, irritable, and less focused.”

  • Create consistency. Set a specific time to wake up, nap, and lie down at the end of the day. A sleep schedule can help reset your internal clock. “Being consistent will help your body get into the right routine," said Dr. Fletcher. “Try to avoid changing your pattern to catch up on weekends, but you want to stay as close to your routine as possible.”

  • Be mindful of mealtimes. Avoid eating large or heavy meals or drinking alcohol or caffeine close to bedtime.

  • Engage in daily physical activity. “Though there are differing opinions as to the best time of day to exercise, physical activity is part of a sound sleep hygiene plan,” Dr. Fletcher said. She suggests avoiding vigorous activity an hour or two before sleep.

  • Establish a wind-down routine that limits excessive light exposure. Light influences your body’s circadian rhythm, so turn off your electronics before bed and embrace low-tech activities, like reading a book, writing in a journal, or taking a warm bath. If you want a social connection, consider a phone call with a friend versus scrolling on social media.  

  • Rest and relax in a sleep-friendly environment. “Your bedroom should be quiet, dark, cool, and relaxing for optimal sleep,” said Dr. Fletcher. Avoid having a TV in the bedroom, as it can be stimulating. Also, lower the thermostat. A colder room helps your body release melatonin, which helps you fall asleep faster and limits cortisol, a stress hormone that can wake you up.

  • Write it down. Quality sleep can become impeded by worrisome thoughts or fears. If you have concerns, keep a pen/paper by the bed and jot them down.

When to Seek Professional Assistance?

The National Sleep Foundation estimates that between 50-70 million Americans suffer from sleep disorders, including insomnia, sleep apnea, and other problems. If you or a loved one has sleep concerns – such as waking up gasping for breath, having recurring nightmares, having trouble falling asleep, or having difficulty staying asleep – it may be time for a visit with a sleep expert.

“Finding if you have a sleep disorder or are experiencing PTSD- or depression-related symptoms can open the door to therapies or treatments to help improve your sleep,” said Dr. Fletcher.

WWP offers various programs and services that can help veterans in getting a sleep disorder diagnosis or if an underlying condition is hindering quality sleep. 

  • WWP’s Physical Health and Wellness team offers warriors opportunities to improve their overall health and wellness. One way is through a multiweek coaching program where a physical health and wellness coach works together with the warrior to establish goals to enhance their wellness journey, including sleep hygiene.

  • Warrior Care Network® is a partnership with four of the nation’s top medical facilities that provide mental health care for veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder and brain injuries. Clinical treatments at Warrior Care Network sites improve symptoms and quality of life.

"Good quality sleep is hard – even for me. It is more challenging if you have anxiety, depression, or have experienced trauma," said Dr. Fletcher. "Give yourself some grace as you develop new routines and habits, knowing that every change is a positive step toward better sleep and a healthier you."

Contact: Cynthia Weiss – Public Relations,, 904.738.2589

About Wounded Warrior Project
Since 2003, Wounded Warrior Project® (WWP) has been meeting the growing needs of warriors, their families, and caregivers — helping them achieve their highest ambition. Learn more.

*Warrior Survey, Wave 2 (conducted June 15-Aug. 24, 2022) 

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