Snooze More, Stress Less: New Study Links Negative Thoughts To Sleep Habits

mindbodygreen Editorial Assistant By Sarah Regan
mindbodygreen Editorial Assistant

Sarah Regan is a writer, registered yoga instructor, and Editorial Assistant at mindbodygreen. She received her bachelor's in broadcasting and mass communication from SUNY Oswego, and lives in Brooklyn, New York.

Woman Asleep In Bed

As anyone who's ever been sleep deprived will tell you, sleepless nights can lead to rough mornings (and afternoons, and evenings). And according to a new study from the University of York and the University of Cambridge in England, there's a strong connection between a lack of sleep and unwanted thoughts. Here's what the researchers found and why it's significant.

Looking at the connection between sleep and unwanted thoughts.

For the study, researchers set out to test how well participants could manage intrusive, negative thoughts after being sleep deprived.

As lead author of the study Marcus Harrington, Ph.D., notes in a news release, "For most people, thought intrusions pass quickly, but for those suffering with psychiatric conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder, they can be repetitive, uncontrollable, and distressing."

The 60 people participating were shown pictures of negative versus neutral scenes and asked to associate certain faces with each scene. That night, half the participants slept normally while the other half were deprived of sleep. They were then shown the same faces the next day and asked to suppress thoughts about the scene each one was associated with.

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What they found.

There was a very strong connection between sleep deprivation and an increase in unwanted thoughts. The sleep-deprived participants had nearly 50% more unwanted thoughts than the control group.

The control group, on the other hand, got better at managing the unwanted thoughts with practice, and they also showed a lower stress response during the study. The same was not true for those who were sleep deprived.

"Our study suggests sleep loss has a considerable impact on our ability to keep unwanted thoughts out of our minds," Harrington notes.

The takeaway.

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Not only does this research highlight the importance of getting quality sleep on a consistent basis, but it also suggests poor sleep and intrusive thoughts can become cyclical.

"The onset of intrusive thoughts and emotional disturbances following bouts of poor sleep could create a vicious cycle, whereby upsetting intrusions and emotional distress exacerbate sleep problems, inhibiting the sleep needed to support recovery," says senior author of the study Scott Cairney, Ph.D.

All the more reason to focus on sleep hygiene, get to bed early, or take a sleep-promoting supplement—particularly if you suffer from unwanted thoughts or have a psychiatric condition like PTSD or depression.

At the end of the day, there isn't one of us out there who can go without sleep and feel our best. And if you're experiencing negative or unwanted thoughts, catching up on your zzz's might be just what you're missing.

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