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How Sleep Apnea Can Affect Mental Health

man with sleep apnea machine

Sleep apnea is an issue that causes pauses in breathing throughout the sleep cycle. This issue can cause people to awaken frequently, snore loudly, and experience disturbances in their dreams. The condition is potentially life-threatening because it can interfere with the brain’s oxygen supply.

But people experiencing sleep apnea aren’t just stuck dealing with its physical effects. They may also experience mental health challenges.

A study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that people with sleep apnea were more likely to experience depression than people in the general population. Disturbances in sleep can affect mental health, and the stress of having a serious medical condition is sufficient to send some people into depression. But sleep apnea is particularly likely to interfere with mental health because of the reduced oxygen supply to the brain at night, which can alter brain functioning and thus increase a person’s likelihood of developing depression.

The fact sleep apnea affects people while they’re sleeping—a time when people are supposed to be at peace—can be particularly jarring. Some people have to wear special masks connected to continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machines to ensure that they breathe normally throughout the night, and the threat of breathing problems can cause severe anxiety. This anxiety, in turn, may make sleep problems worse, and sleep deprivation can contribute to both depression and anxiety, a vicious cycle for people with sleep apnea.

Relationship Problems
For many people, the first sign that they have sleep apnea is a spouse’s complaints about snoring. Even extremely supportive spouses might not want to listen to a person with sleep apnea snore all night, and some people with the condition end up sleeping in separate bedrooms. This can decrease opportunities for intimacy and increase relationship dissatisfaction, contributing to stress for both parties.

Changes in Dreams
Many mental health professionals believe dreams are an opportunity to process the events of the day and to encode memories. Dreams also provide a testing ground for anxiety-inducing scenarios, long-term goals, and everyday interactions. Because people with sleep apnea awaken frequently, they may be unable to enter the rapid eye movement (REM) sleep that is necessary for dreaming. Among people who do not enter or remain in REM sleep, there may be a number of mental health problems, ranging from anxiety to difficulty with memory.

Cognitive Impairment
If you can’t sleep, can’t dream, and are worried about a chronic medical condition, it’s not surprising that you might have difficulty concentrating. People with sleep apnea may be exhausted during the day and have trouble focusing on important tasks, including job-related activities. Sleep problems can alter mood, making people with sleep apnea jumpy or quick-tempered, and making it more difficult for them to navigate the challenges of everyday life.

Many of the problems associated with sleep apnea are interconnected, and stress during the day can make sleep apnea worse at night. There are effective treatments, though you might have to try several approaches before something works. If you have sleep problems, consult your doctor.


  1. Lyon, L. (2009, August 24). 7 things that make sleep apnea worse. US News. Retrieved from http://health.usnews.com/health-news/family-health/articles/2009/08/24/7-things-that-make-sleep-apnea-worse
  2. Sleep and mental health. (n.d.). Harvard Health Publications. Retrieved from http://www.health.harvard.edu/newsletters/Harvard_Mental_Health_Letter/2009/July/Sleep-and-mental-health
  3. Sleep apnea can cause depression. (n.d.). New Technology Publishing, Inc. Retrieved from http://www.healthyresources.com/sleep/apnea/articles/depress.html

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  • Naomi December 15th, 2012 at 11:26 AM #1

    It must be weighing heavy on the minds of those affected!Breathing is being alive and the mere thought that your breathing is out of your control could send me into a panic attack.

    Poor sleep by itself can have many consequences on various aspects of life – not feeling recharged enough, being frustrated, reduced productivity and a rise in stress. Now add having to worry about something as basic as breathing and those things will only shoot up.

    I just hope there are better ways to help those with sleep apnea.Having a pipe running to your face while you’re asleep doesn’t sounds like a very elegant solution!

  • sue December 15th, 2012 at 3:01 PM #2

    I haven’t slept well for weeks now. I don’t have sleep apnea but my sleep does seem to be very superficial, I feel I cannot reach the REM stage and yes, dreams are a long lost memory for me. It has made me a little frustrated sure, but I want to stay away from other effects if any that could develop. What measure would you suggest I take from here?


  • Camden December 16th, 2012 at 8:11 AM #3

    Oh I hate snoring! Just cannot sleep if there is even the slightest hint of somebody snoring.While I understand this is a problem much beyond the control of the one suffering from it, is there any permanent relief for this?I hope my future partner is not someone who has this problem.

  • Sujatha Reddy December 16th, 2012 at 8:14 AM #4

    I am a counselor and I offer Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for insomnia and other sleep disorders. You can contact me through my website if you need help with your sleep problems.

  • Joni December 16th, 2012 at 9:54 AM #5

    Well my husband has sleep apnea and refuses to wear that face mask at night even though he knows that when he does he sleeps better, and I know that this makes him be in a much better mood most of the time. But if he refuses to do it then what am I supposed to do? He is a grown man and makes his own decisions but I know that he feels better and I feel better when I am not worried about him stopping breathing in the middle of the night! I think a lot of the time about how sick he stays and how depressed he gets just from feeling so bad all the time but he won’t listen to me or the doctors.

  • Andrea Avery February 5th, 2013 at 3:29 AM #6

    Sleep Apnea is a sleep disorder in a person, wherein an individual takes long pauses while breathing in sleep. These pauses could be as long as a few minutes, or as short as a couple of seconds, and may take place over a range of 5 to 30 times in every hour. It can occur in anyone, right from infants to ageing adults.A close observation of changes in the daily habits of a person can be indicative of a person developing the problem of sleep apnea. Fatigue, delayed reaction and vision problems are commonly noticed symptoms.Doctors recommend that if you make simple changes like quit smoking, losing extra weight, etc. you can reduce your chances of contracting sleep apnea. But the most effective way of treating sleep apnea is to use CPAP (continuous positive airway pressure) machine, wherein the patient wears a mask which is connected to a machine that assists in breathing. Also, devices like BPAP and EPAP help in equalizing the pressure in the lungs while the patients are asleep.

  • Insomnio tratamiento Alicante February 24th, 2013 at 12:01 AM #7

    Besides what has been mentioned, depression, anxiety, … Older women with this disease, sleep apnea, are more likely to develop memory problems and dementia. In a study involving 300 Mujere, found that just over 45 percent of women who had symptoms of sleep apnea in the first tests had developed mild cognitive impairment or dementia five years later. Sleep apnea has been associated with other problems such as high blood pressure and cholesterol. Researchers pointed to lower blood flow to the brain during sleep as a possible cause of cognitive problems and the lack of steady oxygen overnight was related to problems with memory and thinking, and not so much with the amount of total sleep women studied or the number of times awoke during the night.
    “It seems to make sense that a good rest protects the brain”

  • Sleep Apnea April 23rd, 2013 at 3:00 PM #8

    All these are true and one must not ignore sleep apnea symptoms or they might end up into more complicated problems. I am always telling my patients regarding sleep apnea and since they are afraid to take the test i always give them questions to test themselves if they have symptoms. Everyone must also know that sleep apnea can lead to type 2 diabetes.

  • Jimmy Keillor May 30th, 2013 at 12:12 PM #9

    This was very interesting to read. I think many of us don’t put sleep on as high of a pedestal as it should be. It does play a very large role in our lives, and this articles reinforces that. If you suffer from sleep apnea, you owe to yourself to take positive steps to help solve it so your life, as well as your loved ones are in a better place.

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