New Study Reveals Link between Deep Sleep Loss and Anxiety

New research shows why regularly getting a good night’s sleep is crucial for your mental health.

By Andrea Pisani Babich
White male caucasian young adult on bed with head on pillow with eyes wide open staring off into space at the camera. Afraid of the dark.

Forty million Americans suffer from a chronic anxiety disorder according to the National Institutes of Health. And that number is on the rise. A recent survey of Americans showed that almost 40% of respondents reported feeling more anxious than they did a year ago.

Just three years earlier, surveys conducted by the Centers for Disease Control revealed that 40% of Americans sleep less than seven hours each night.

Could it be that the 40% who reported an increase in anxiety are the same 40% who are sleep deprived? New research suggests the answer could be “yes.”

While it has been long been known that anxiety robs people of sleep, a recent study published in the journal Nature Human Behavior demonstrates that even one sleepless night causes an increase in anxiety levels by as much as 30%. Furthermore, the research showed that just one good night’s sleep, can reduce anxiety to manageable levels.

Deep Sleep Can Restore an Anxious Mind

In an effort to understand how sleep loss almost immediately increases anxiety levels, researchers Matthew Walker and Eti Ben Simon of the University of California – Berkeley compared participants’ responses to emotionally charged video when they were sleep deprived with those after they had a full night’s sleep.

Using functional MRI and polysomnography to record brain waves and other metrics, they found that after participants were deprived of sleep for one night, their brains’ emotional centers were overactive the next day. At the same time their emotional centers were in overdrive, their medial prefrontal cortexes—the part of the brain that works to reduce anxiety—had completely shut down, allowing their stress levels to rise as they viewed emotionally charged content.

Later, participants were allowed to sleep a full night while researchers observed their brain waves. They found that their anxiety levels decreased significantly, especially for those who experienced more slow-wave NREM sleep, or deep sleep. The results indicate that the amount of sleep participants got from one night to the next affected their anxiety levels the next day.

Dr. Simon notes, “Our study not only establishes a causal connection between sleep and anxiety, but it identifies the kind of deep NREM sleep we need to calm the overanxious brain.” His co-author, Dr. Walker, suggests that the remedy to rising rates of anxiety in industrialized nations may simply be regular, adequate sleep.

For people who are already caught in the vicious circle in which anxiety results in sleep loss and sleep loss increases anxiety, the means of escape may be a little more difficult. But according to Dr. Simon, sleep should not be ignored.

“People with anxiety disorders routinely report having disturbed sleep, but rarely is sleep improvement considered as a clinical recommendation for lowering anxiety.” Dr. Simon and Dr. Walker suggest that nightly, sufficient, and uninterrupted sleep should be part of therapy regimens aimed at reducing chronic anxiety.

Walker’s and Simon’s data also indicate that people can reverse at least short-term anxiety with a good night’s sleep. Furthermore, people can help prevent succumbing to chronic anxiety disorders by regularly sleeping the recommended seven to nine hours.

Need help falling asleep and staying asleep? Read our tips for improving your sleep here.

The information provided here is not intended to replace advice from a health care professional. If you believe you suffer from an anxiety disorder and/or have trouble sleeping, please consult a physician.

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