It’s estimated that about 40 million American adults are diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, with the number also growing in teens and children. Whether or not you’re one of them or you often feel like you struggle to manage your stress, a new study suggests that there could be an unsuspected culprit behind your agitated feelings — lack of sleep.
To determine the relationship between sleep and anxiety levels, researchers out of UC Berkeley recruited 18 adult subjects and showed them emotionally provocative video clips, first after a full night’s sleep, and then after a night without sleep. While asleep, their brain activity was measured via electrodes placed on the head. The researchers also monitored brain activity while subjects watched the videos using MRI and polysomnography brain scanning technology. After each session, anxiety levels were measured and subjects were given a questionnaire.
Results indicated that after a night without sleep, the medial prefrontal cortex (an area of the brain that regulates anxiety) was shut down while emotional centers of the brain became overactive. “Without sleep, it’s almost as if the brain is too heavy on the emotional accelerator pedal, without enough brake,” said study author Matthew Walker, professor of neuroscience and psychology at UC Berkeley. So if you’ve been going without enough hours of those precious Z’s, it makes sense that you might be feeling a little more frustrated than usual.
What’s more, the researchers determined that specifically, those who got more non-rapid eye movement sleep (NREM) were less likely to experience high anxiety levels. “We have identified a new function of deep sleep, one that decreases anxiety overnight by reorganizing connections in the brain,” said Walker. NREM or slow-wave deep sleep is the stage of sleep when the brain waves are slow, blood pressure drops, and breathing and heart rate become slow and regular. According to study lead author Eti Ben Simon, this type of sleep “restored the brain’s prefrontal mechanism that regulates our emotions, lowering emotional and physiological reactivity and preventing the escalation of anxiety.”
If sleep doesn’t come easy to you, don’t worry. There are several lifestyle habits that have been shown to help people doze of quicker, as well as improve the overall quality sleep. To get more restorative, anxiety-fighting sleep, try and have a consistent routine of going to bed and waking up at the same time each day. This will help train your body into healthier habits.
Additionally, try to limit your consumption of caffeinated beverages (especially before bedtime) as caffeine is a known sleep-disruptor. Getting more physical activity into your day will help you sleep more deeply, too. Aim for at least 30 minutes of gentle exercise each day, and consider trying a nervous-system-soothing activity like yoga, which has shown to improve sleep and quality of life in older adults.
Limit your screen time before bed, too. Blue light from screens is another factor affecting sleep quality among adults and children. Instead, incorporate stress-reducing activities like reading or meditation into your nightly routine. Did you know that mindfulness meditation can not only help you catch more Z’s, but it can also go to work on anxious feelings? If you’re confused about where to start, check out our beginner’s guide!
We’re wishing you many restful nights and peaceful days ahead!