The psychological effect of sleep apnea…

Obstructive sleep apnea in its most simplistic definition is a condition where the walls of the throat relax and narrow during sleep meaning that normal breathing is interrupted. The condition affects 1 in 5 of the adult population in the UK but this figure is seen to be somewhat conservative because many people who have sleep apnea actually don’t know they have the condition. However, for those with severe sleep apnea this figure is more like 1 in 10 but the unfortunate reality is that for these people, there is a greater risk of developing psychological conditions.

It is sometimes hard to believe how much of an effect sleep apnea can have on someone’s state of mind because you’ll only ever be in a semi-conscious state when experiencing it. But what exactly are the negative mental health effects that come with sleep apnea?


An underlying condition for many that have sleep apnea is depression. It is true to say that those with sleep apnea have higher rates of depression than the general population. This is because there is a lot of broken sleep alone is enough to perpetuate negative thoughts and spiral people into a state of depression.

However, this is perhaps magnified for those with sleep apnea as they are even further exposed to negative mental health conditions. This is because the reduced supply oxygen to the brain at night actually has the ability to impair the brains functioning and a person’s likelihood of developing depression.

Further to this, an independent Occupational Therapist, Julie Jennings gives her verdict on lack of sleep:

“It is the stark reality that those who regularly get less than six hours sleep per night have an increased level of inflammatory proteins which is linked to premature ageing, heart disease, strokes and depression. The truth is that sleep gives us a natural restorative period that enables us to recuperate and simply make sense of the previous day”.


For people who have severe cases of sleep apnea, they can wake up every few minutes leading to hours of lost sleep every night. It therefore, perhaps comes as no surprise that those who have the condition will regularly have feelings of complete exhaustion and lethargy which can make it very difficult to complete everyday tasks.

The lack / poor quality sleep that comes with sleep apnea will inevitably affect different people in different ways. However, from observation and anecdotal evidence it is suggested that this can make individuals easily agitated and quick tempered. As such, this often puts a strain on close family members and friends.

Slowed reaction time:

The lack of sleep caused by sleep apnea can also reduce your reaction time which can be potentially fatal. Particularly, if you engage in activities such as driving or being involved in a job that requires quick decisions to be made. There are thousands of reported accidents every year that are a result of driver fatigue and many even report nodding off whilst behind the wheel.

However, it is not only sleeping behind the wheel which leads to someone being dangerous. For example drowsiness alone can be as dangerous as driving whilst under the influence of alcohol. Also, if you have an occupation such as a firefighter, a police officer or soldier, where split decisions need to be made, sleep deprivation from sleep apnea can be devastating.


Sleep, in its most natural sense, is meant to be a time of relaxation and peace. However, the reverse of this can be true for sufferers of sleep apnea. Instead, it can be a time of worry and panic and simply going to bed can be a horrible time. To add to this, the treatment for the condition can often involve wearing a mouth piece or a mask to ensure breathing is regulated.

However, the fear of not being able to breathe with the apparatus is enough to send people into a state of anxiety. This anxiety could then lead to a lack of sleep anyway which can then lead to sleep deprivation and in turn result in even further anxiety and depression. For some this becomes a vicious cycle that is hard to break.

Combination of effects:

Often it is not just one psychological factor that comes as a result of sleep apnea but a combination of both mental and physical health conditions. Many of these problems are all interconnected and one can be a catalyst for another. It is also important to say that the more serious physical conditions that are linked with sleep apnea can also be lead to further mental health disorders.

To discover the different ways to overcome and nullify the threat of sleep apnea, take a look at another article, sleep apnea – a night time education.


AAA Blog Disclaimer

The views, opinions and positions expressed by the authors and those providing comments on these blogs are theirs alone, and do not necessarily reflect the views, opinions or positions of the Age Action Alliance or any individual Alliance Member or associate.

To read the full disclaimer, click here.

Simple guidelines on Blogging for the Age Action Alliance are available here.

Post Your Comment