Lack of Sleep Can Cause the Anxiety Keeping You Awake


Insomnia is not just a byproduct of anxiety.

While many research studies have linked sleep problems and mental health disorders, a recent study shows that sleep deprivation causes the same abnormal brain activity associated with disabling anxiety.

Anticipatory anxiety is the expectation that something unpleasant might occur. Sleep deprivation increases a person’s anticipatory anxiety by ramping up neural firing in the brain’s insular cortex and amygdala. This same brain activity is found in those with anxiety disorders.

This discovery means that those who are highly anxious by nature are also those who will experience the most harm from inadequate sleep. It also suggests that individuals diagnosed with panic disorder, generalized anxiety disorder or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) may experience substantial symptom relief by undergoing sleep therapy.

The Research Study in Brief

The study, done at UC Berkeley, was published in the Journal of Neuroscience.

  1. Study participants were healthy young adults who viewed different types of images after sleeping well and after sleep deprivation.
  2. Researchers monitored the participants' neural activity using MRI technology.
  3. Participants were primed by one of three visual cues prior to being shown a group of images: a large red minus sign indicated the coming images were very unpleasant (such as death scenes); a yellow circle indicated the coming images were neutral (such as a basket on a table); a white question mark indicated the coming images were either very unpleasant or neutral.
  4. The white question mark proved to be the cue that caused the most distress.
  5. When sleep-deprived participants were cued by the white question mark, they waited in suspenseful anticipation for either grisly or bland images, and the neural activity in their insular cortex and amygdala (emotional brain centers) soared. This is the same brain activity known to occur with anxiety disorders.

Research Implications

“If sleep disruption is a key factor in anxiety disorders, as this study suggests, then it’s a potentially treatable target,” said senior author Matthew Walker, psychology and neuroscience professor. “By restoring good quality sleep in people suffering from anxiety, we may be able to help ameliorate their excessive worry and disabling fearful expectations.”

“This discovery illustrates how important sleep is to our mental health, and emphasizes the intimate relationship between sleep and psychiatric disorders, both from a cause and a treatment perspective.”

Making this Research Practical

Because this research shows that inadequate sleep can cause anticipatory anxiety, we need to do what we can to ensure nights of sweet slumber.

If you are prone to anxiety:

  1. Keep technology out of the bedroom. Computers, gaming equipment and TVs are not conducive to relaxation and the adequate spilling of Z's.
  2. Keep your bedroom cool and as dark and quiet as possible; people sleep better in these conditions.
  3. If you must snack before bedtime, keep it light, non-sugary and decaffeinated.
  4. Practice a simple bedtime routine each night. It lets your body know that it is time to prepare for a few hours between the sheets. A routine might be a warm shower and gentle stretching exercises or listening to relaxing music before turning off the light.
  5. Get adequate exercise every day so that you do not hit the sack with a body full of pent-up energy.
  6. If sleep problems persist, research sleep therapies available to you and discuss them with your doctor or therapist.

Source: Science Daily

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