Not Sleeping Can Increase Anxiety, But The Flip Side Of That Can Help

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Get some sleep is annoying advice, but science stands behind it. That platitude that you'll "feel better after getting some sleep"? It might actually have some weight behind it. According to a new study, not sleeping can increase your anxiety by around 30% — but a good night’s sleep can, naturally, do the opposite.

The study, published in the journal Nature Human Behaviour, found that getting a good night’s sleep can function as an effective anti-anxiety treatment as soon as the next morning. The researchers used fMRIs to scan the brains of 18 young adult participants, who were instructed to view short but emotional video clips after getting a full night’s sleep and after having a sleepless night. The young adults who didn’t get sleep experienced more anxiety when confronted with emotional content. This makes sense considering that the medial prefrontal cortex — which helps reduce overall anxiety levels — was shut down in tired participants. The researchers replicated these results with another 30 participants and found consistent results in nearly 300 people of all ages.

Anxiety can definitely have a negative impact on both the quality and quantity of your sleep. According to the National Sleep Foundation (NSF), high levels of stress and anxiety can cause a lot of difficulties for people trying to fall asleep and stay sleeping deeply. This new study suggests that even though people with anxiety are predisposed to have more disrupted sleep patterns, figuring out ways to sleep more and more deeply can serve as a significant non-pharmacological treatment for anxiety.

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This is perhaps especially important for people who are already more prone to sleep disturbances and anxiety, according to a 2018 study published in the journal Northern Clinics of Istanbul. The study found that income level, gender, having a chronic illness, using medication regularly, and your relationship with your family and social environment all impact your levels of sleep, stress, and anxiety. And a 2019 study published in the journal Frontiers in Neurology found that clinical depression and anxiety have a strong relationship with insomnia, and that these experiences cyclically reinforce each other (for example, anxiety triggers insomnia, which makes you more anxious, etc.). So if your sleep and anxiety levels are interacting at the level of your brain chemistry, where are you supposed to start with reducing your anxiety and increasing the quantity and quality of your sleep?

According to Harvard Health, trying to hang out in the sun for at least 30 minutes during the day can help you get a good night’s sleep, because exposure to sunlight can help regulate your sleep patterns. All the better if you can keep your bedroom cool (between 60 and 67 degrees Fahrenheit): according to the NSF, the lower temperature can help your body sleep easier, since your body temperature lowers itself when you sleep anyway. And even though there’s nothing wrong with feeling comforted by some screen time before bed, the light from your phone or TV might trick your body into thinking it’s daytime and wanting to be awake.

But remember that you can practice excellent sleep hygiene and still have difficulty sleeping (and feel extremely anxious as a result). The Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA) says it’s important not to force yourself to sleep. If you’re tossing and turning for more than 30 minutes, feel free to get out of bed and read or do something else that you find relaxing.

So if you didn’t sleep well last night and are feeling extra anxious today, know that even though it feels terrible, it’s not your fault. Your brain is reacting to your body wanting more sleep and therefore making you more vulnerable to anxiety. But you got through it yesterday, and you’ll get through it again today — and hopefully, it’ll lead to better sleep tonight so you can have less anxiety tomorrow.

Studies Referenced:

Simon, E.B. (2019) Overanxious and underslept. Nature Human Behaviour, https://www.nature.com/articles/s41562-019-0754-8.

Teker, A.G. (2018) Sleep quality and anxiety level in employees. Northern Clinics of Istanbul, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5864704/.

Oh, C. (2019) The effect of anxiety and depression on sleep quality of individuals with high risk for insomnia: A population-based study. Frontiers in Neurology, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6700255/.