Restless Legs Syndrome and Mental Health
Reviewed by: HU Medical Review Board | Last reviewed: June 2020 | Last updated: March 2022
Restless legs syndrome (RLS) and mental health have a chicken and egg relationship. People with RLS often have depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues. And, people with mental health issues often have restless legs.
Plenty of evidence exists to prove that restless legs syndrome and mental health are closely tied, including:1-3
- About 4 of every 10 people with RLS also have a psychiatric condition like depression, anxiety, or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
- RLS can cause insomnia and insomnia is one of the 9 symptoms used to diagnose major depression.
- The worse the RLS symptoms, the more likely someone is to be diagnosed with a serious mental health issue.
- In most people, their mood disorder appeared after their RLS symptoms began, which means RLS may cause or aggravate depression or anxiety.
Living better with restless legs syndrome
It is possible to take steps to improve your mental health and your RLS at the same time. It may take some trial and error to find which combination of lifestyle changes, relaxation techniques, and medicine work best for you.
Get treated for both conditions
Some doctors may believe that mild depression and anxiety get better by treating the symptoms of RLS. However, people with more severe depression must be treated for both conditions to find long-term healthy sleep. That means that taking your medicine for depression or anxiety may help you get more sleep. But, some antidepressants make RLS symptoms worse, so your doctor will need to be careful about which one you are prescribed. You also will likely need to include non-drug options like exercise and lifestyle changes to find lasting results.3
You can learn what makes your RLS worse, or better, by paying attention to your body. You may discover that you need to cut out caffeine or alcohol completely to be able to fall asleep each night. Or, you may find that iron supplements and warm baths work for you, while cold medicine makes it worse. Self-awareness can be the first step in taking control of your symptoms.4
Exercise and massage
Regular, moderate exercise has been shown to improve RLS symptoms. Exercise that uses the legs, such as walking, running, biking, or swimming can be especially helpful. It can also help improve your mood, release stress, and help you sleep better at night. Exercise releases endorphins that improve your mood and energy levels. Many people find movement reduces the uncomfortable sensations in their legs.4
Relaxation, meditation, and mindfulness
Deep, slow breathing is a good place to start if you find yourself tense and unable to sleep. Other relaxation techniques include taking a warm bath or practicing muscle relaxation. Guided meditation is another way to help you release anxiety and stress so that sleep comes more easily. However, learning meditation and relaxation skills takes time. Be patient with yourself as you explore which mindfulness or meditation techniques work for you.
Increase social connections
People with restless legs sometimes isolate themselves at home because they feel tired and depressed. This is a reasonable reaction to a lack of sleep but isolation can make depression worse. Try to break the isolation by connecting with others online, through a hobby, sports, or volunteer work.
Stress, worry, grief, and trauma make depression and anxiety worse. These feelings also make it hard to get a good night’s sleep. Finding help to process these underlying emotions can help you sleep better and lift your mood.2
The more you understand about RLS and your mental health, its treatments, and your triggers, the more you can advocate for yourself and educate others. Consider attending a conference to learn more about the connection between mental health and RLS and the latest treatments.