New Studies Explore How Sleep Deprivation Messes With Emotions

Failing to get enough sleep can impair emotional functioning and prime the brain to perceive situations in a more negative light, according to a new series of five studies. The studies examined the effect of sleep loss on a range of emotional functions including empathy, mood, emotional perceptions, and emotional regulation.

“Emotion regulation is the ability to effectively manage how we experience and express emotions,” Dr. Amanda Seavey, Ph.D., founder of Clarity Psychological Wellness and a member of the Mattress Clarity Expert Network, told Mattress Clarity via email. “Someone with decreased ability to regulate emotions may feel overwhelmed by emotions and find it difficult not to let those feelings and thoughts control their actions.”

Sleep deprived people are also more likely to suffer from anxiety and/or depression, Katie Ziskind, LMFT, a marriage and family therapist and owner of Wisdom Within Counseling, told Mattress Clarity via email. “Getting good sleep directly relates to mental health,” she says. “Feeling centered and grounded during your day is a result of your brain sleeping at night.”

While emotional impairment may result from a variety of causes, these studies suggest sleep loss — which affects approximately 1 in 3 American adults — is a common culprit. More research is needed to understand exactly why sleep deprivation impairs emotional regulation. In the meantime, these studies offer insights into how sleep loss can influence a person’s emotional landscape.

Sleep deprivation and emotionsPhotographee.eu/Shutterstock

Sleep Loss And Emotional Function

The studies, which were conducted at the Karolinska Institute, found that a single night of insufficient sleep is all it takes to change a person’s emotional behavior.

Those changes may take several forms, including impaired empathy (particularly among older participants), reduced emotional regulation, negative mood, or a pronounced negativity bias. Decreased emotional regulation and increased negativity bias were especially common among younger participants.

“Negativity bias typically refers to the fact that our brains react more strongly to negative stimuli,” Seavey told us. “Therefore, we are more influenced by negative news or bad experiences than positive ones… Scientists have also found that without enough sleep, we tend to focus on the negative and experience increased rumination, factors associated with lowered mood.”

The researcher for the current studies examined several factors — including age, immune factors, and neurological changes — that might help explain why sleep loss can affect emotional regulation. They speculated that changes in the brain’s gray matter might partially explain these effects, though more research is needed.

Sleep deprivation and emotionfizkes/Shutterstock

A Growing Body Of Evidence

This latest series of studies aligns with previous research. Prior to this study, researchers had uncovered several links between sleep deprivation and emotional functioning.

“Sleep deprivation is associated with more difficulty managing emotions, a more negative outlook, increased worry, and feeling more overwhelmed,” Seavey told us. “Furthermore, decreased sleep is associated with difficulty with memory and concentration, which may increase stress. Those experiencing sleep deprivation often report experiencing less positive emotion and more negative emotion, such as anger and sadness.”

Researchers are still working to determine exactly why sleep loss affects emotional functioning. “There’s still a lot to understand about the connection between sleep and mood,” Seavey says. She outlines a few of the most promising theories:

  • “Research shows that the brain is more reactive to positive, negative, and neutral stimuli when sleep deprived.”
  • “Lack of sleep may affect communication between areas of the brain involved in the regulation of emotion and behavior, which may lead to more difficulty with emotion regulation; however, the findings for this theory are mixed.”
  • “Scientists have found that REM sleep appears to be important for processing negative events and memories. When we experience sleep deprivation, we may be getting less REM sleep and therefore missing out on an emotional reset.”

While more research is needed, Seavey says one thing is certain: “There is little doubt that lack of sleep does, in fact, impact our emotional health.”

Man sleeping well
Motortion Films/Shutterstock

Managing Emotions With Better Sleep

If healthy emotional functioning relies on adequate, high-quality sleep, then it’s important to make sleep a daily priority.

“To get good sleep, you need to train your brain to turn off,” Ziskund told us. To that end, she offers several recommendations:

  • “Create a good sleep routine by turning off your phone an hour before you go to bed.”
  • “Do a guided meditation for 10 minutes before you go to bed.”
  • “If you wake up in the middle of the night, remind yourself that it’s time to sleep and try to stay relaxed.”

Ziskund also encourages people who may be struggling to sleep well and/or manage their emotions effectively to consider therapy.

“Going to therapy on a weekly basis can be something reliable and consistent in your life, and it can help you release tough emotions to sleep better at night,” she says. “Therapy can teach you positive coping skills to calm and relax even if you’ve had a stressful day.”

Featured image: fizkes/Shutterstock

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Laura Newcomer

Laura Newcomer is the Editorial Controller at Mattress Clarity, where she occasionally writes sleep news. She's worked as a professional writer and editor for over a decade and has been published in or on outlets such as TIME, Washington Post, Inc., Entrepreneur, Huffington Post, Women's Health, and many more. Her primary areas of interest include sleep, fitness, nutrition, eco-friendly living, education, and all things wellness.

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