The connection between sleep and mental health has always been present. A lack of sleep can lead to a greater sense of irritability, lack of motivation, increase in depression and anxiety, etc. Sleep is one of the most important aspects of being a human being, so when we’re not getting enough of it, our physical and mental well-being suffers greatly. Extensive research has only further emphasized the connection specifically with sleep and anxiety; sleepless nights can lead to a 30% increase in overall anxiety, according to Medical News Today.
Deep sleep was the main focus of this particular study, as it’s been proven countless times in the past that the longer period of time you’re in the “deep” part of your sleep cycle, the less anxiety will be present the following day.
“To measure anxiety levels, the researchers asked a group of 18 young adults to watch emotionally unsettling videos after a full night of sleep and after a sleepless night. After each viewing, the participants completed a standard anxiety questionnaire called the state-trait anxiety inventory. The scientists used functional MRI and polysomnography to scan the brains of the sleeping participants in order to identify the stages of sleep. The brain scans showed that a brain area called the medial prefrontal cortex was deactivated after a sleepless night,” according to Medical News Today.
The prefrontal cortex has been studied in the past in anxiety studies, which have worked to prove that this area of the brain is what helps us reduce our daily stresses and anxieties. So when this area is “deactivated” due to a lack of sleep, the anxiety and stress of our everyday lives are amplified, as there’s no on switch for the prefrontal cortex once it’s turned off. The only way to turn it back on is to get some much-needed deep sleep.
To better understand our sleep cycle, let’s break down the stages of our nightly sleep patterns. Scientists divide our sleep cycle into two categories. There’s rapid eye movement (REM) and non-REM sleep. Non-REM sleep is what controls how well, and how deeply we sleep every night. There’s four main stages to non-REM sleep, the first two are light and involves the part of the night where our bodies are fully relaxing, unwinding, and succumbing to the comfort of temporary unconsciousness. The third is our friend, deep sleep, which is the majority of the night in which our bodies fully recharge themselves and give us restorative energy to use when we wake up. Finally, the fourth stage is also a lighter sleep, this time towards the end of the night, this stage is when most of our dreams occur as our bodies begin to wake up with all the newly developed energy we gained from stage 3.
So without enough proper sleep during this cycle, our brains can feel heavier and it becomes harder to function. Without enough deep sleep, there’s not enough restorative energy to last an entire day and our emotions are able to run rampant, as our brain doesn’t have enough energy to turn them off. This is what leads to overwhelming feelings of anxiety. Our increase in irritability and emotional distress causes massive feelings of discomfort.
“We have identified a new function of deep sleep, one that decreases anxiety overnight by reorganizing connections in the brain. Deep sleep had restored the brain’s prefrontal mechanism that regulates our emotions, lowering emotional and physiological reactivity and preventing the escalation of anxiety,” reports Eti Ben Simon, a postdoctoral fellow at the Center for Human Sleep Science at UC Berkeley and the study’s lead author.
While sleep is not the cure to clinical anxiety, and certainly won’t cure any other mental health ailments one might be experiencing, it definitely doesn’t hurt. Giving your body the necessary rest and restoration it needs for daily function is extremely important. Make sure you’re trying to get your full eight hours every night, and if you’re someone who suffers from feelings of insomnia, talk to your physician right away. Everyone deserves a good night’s rest, and a reduction in their everyday stresses.
Eric Mastrota is a Contributing Editor at The National Digest based in New York. A graduate of SUNY New Paltz, he reports on world news, culture, and lifestyle. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.