Housing Uncertainty Leads to Difficulty Sleeping, Study Shows

Person in bed covered in sheets with a pillow over their head

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Key Takeaways

  • Economic security has a direct correlation to mental and physical health.
  • Those who stress about housing sleep less than those who are housing stable, a new study shows.

An increasing number of Americans are at risk of housing insecurity, with 18.3 million paying at least half of their income on their rent or mortgage, up from 13.9 million in 2001.

A recent study published in the Oxford Academic’s Sleep suggests there is a direct link between housing insecurity and mental and physical wellness, which in turn impacts an individual’s sleep quality.

What Did the Study Show?

Researchers conducted a study using data from 1,046 California residents who received welfare assistance from 2015 to 2018. These numbers were collected in three waves 12 months apart, then were analyzed next to the individuals' sleep patterns, including duration and quality.

The results of the study showed that participants who had trouble or were unable to make payments for their housing slept an average of 22 minutes less per night than those who were able to make their payments.

Sleep quality was disrupted even further for those forced to relocate for financial reasons, with this group sleeping an average of 32 minutes less. “Many people have trouble sleeping in new environments. The more that someone moves the more they need to get used to their surroundings…the instability can lead to anxiety, which has a negative impact on sleep. In a new surrounding, people tend to be a bit more wary and on guard, and unable to relax,” says social worker Sonia Martin, LCSW.

Sleep and Housing Security

For those of us who may have difficulty getting a good night’s rest prior to a big job interview or after a big fight with a partner, this may seem like a no-brainer—understanding that stress impacts sleep seems simple enough. However, the importance of the study lies within not only the money spent on housing payments, but the impact that finances have on stress for the impacted individuals.

Martin says, “Insecurity around housing has a profound effect on the mental state of a person. The uncertainty that comes with this can cause anxiety and depression, which often have an impact on sleep."

Martin notes that when someone is not able to control these feelings, they can have difficulty "shutting off" their brain when it's time to sleep. "The longer that someone goes without a stable place to live, their nervous system is also impacted as the body is then in a constant state of survival mode," she says.

Experts attribute a lot of this increased stress to the overall surge in cost of living, though we also have seen the toll COVID-19 has taken in this area. Due to job losses, the closing of thousands of businesses, and many having to tend to older parents or young children, financial insecurity has been at the forefront for a lot of people.

Sonia Martin, LCSW

The more that housing is viewed as a fundamental human right, the more housing first programs will gain funding and traction.

— Sonia Martin, LCSW

The Importance of Housing Security

Understandably, those who are concerned about basic tenets of security such as food and shelter are likely unable to focus on alternative aspects of health management, such as therapy or exercise. Additionally, people already dealing with mental health issues are at an increased risk of housing insecurity. Each of these factors can lead to difficulty sleeping, never mind when the two are combined.

The importance of these latest findings lies within the clear connection between health disparities and economic security. “The more that housing is viewed as a fundamental human right, the more housing-first programs will gain funding and traction," Martin says.

"Housing is a very stabilizing force and is just as equally destabilizing when one is without. Many people take a safe place to rest for granted, but the effects of lack of sleep on the body are long lasting and detrimental," says Martin.

What This Means For You

Because our basic needs and our health are so closely connected, we have to care about both simultaneously. We also have to understand the ways in which marginalized communities are at higher risk of not having those basic needs like food and housing met, which can lead to decreased sleep, chronic disease, mental health crises, and early mortality,

When discussing the ways to support different communities, ensuring that everyone has food and shelter is of the utmost importance.

2 Sources
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  1. Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University. The State of the Nation’s Housing 2019.

  2. Bozick R, Troxel WM, Karoly LA. Housing insecurity and sleep among welfare recipients in CaliforniaSleep. 2021;44(7):zsab005. doi:10.1093/sleep/zsab005