The body of evidence proving that sleep affects anxiety continues to expand with researchers demonstrating a link between not getting enough sleep and a decrease in the brain’s fear response regulation abilities.
Disruption of fear response regulation may play an important role in mental health disorders such as anxiety and post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). This latest research suggests that improving sleep quality may enhance treatment success potentials for these types of conditions.
Sleep & Anxiety
During a study, researchers employed a standard fear conditioning and extinction process and used an MRI machine to measure brain activity and fear response. The first night participants spent in the sleep lab, they were allowed to sleep according to their usual patterns.
After the fear conditioning and extinction process was complete, the participants were divided into three groups for the second night in the sleep lab. One group was allowed a normal night’s sleep. Another group was permitted to receive just half of their normal amount of sleep, maintaining the first half of their usual sleep schedule. They were kept awake during what would have been the second half of their sleep time on a normal night. The third group was not allowed to sleep at all. The next day, testing was performed to find out how successful the fear extinction process was in the study participants.
According to the results of the study, lack of sleep appears to affect fear response regulation in the brain. Those who had a normal, sufficient amount of sleep were successful in extinguishing the fear conditioning. Their brains showed activity related to the regulating of fear in the prefrontal cortex and via the salience network. Those who experienced limited sleep were significantly less successful in overcoming their fear conditioning, displaying little regulatory action in their brains. Interestingly, the group that fared worst was the group that got just half their usual amount of sleep.
From the results, the researchers theorized that it was, in part, the disruption of rapid eye movement (REM) sleep that led to the significant differences in fear extinction success between the three groups, as this sleep stage comes later in the over all sleep cycle. They supported this conclusion by pointing to other studies that indicate that it is during REM sleep that the day’s fears are dealt with via the deconstructing and unlearning of such memories.
Improved Mental Health
Several studies show that there is a clear connection between sleep and mental health. Chronic, routine disruptions in sleep will have a negative impact on anxiety levels and overall mental health and well-being, contributing to a higher risk of such mental disorders as depression and anxiety.
Start working today towards better sleep quality by improving sleep hygiene. Set and stick to regular sleep and wake times. Limit electronic device use in the two hours before bedtime or block the blue light through orange lenses. Be sure to get enough daytime physical activity. These are just a few ways you can actively support a good night’s rest and keep anxiety levels at a minimum.