A Sleepless Night Can Raise Your Anxiety Levels By 30%, Study Finds

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You know you've gotten a great night's sleep when you wake up feeling calm, energized, and ready to take on whatever the day has in store for you. On the other hand, I know I'm not the only one who feels a bit irritable and anxious after a sleepless night, eyes bleary and brain foggy.  

Researchers at U.C.–Berkeley have found there's a perfectly good reason for why you feel so great after a killer night's sleep. They discovered that deep sleep (also known as non-rapid-eye movement) can calm and reset the anxious brain, meaning this type of sleep can decrease anxiety levels overnight—all we have to do is catch some Z's. 

To discover sleep’s role in our anxiety levels, these researchers conducted a series of experiments. First, they analyzed the brains of 18 young adults as they watched anxiety-inducing video clips (these clips remain unspecified, but I can imagine some sort of horror movie scenario?). They watched these clips after a full night's sleep and again after a night of little sleep. Each participant completed a questionnaire following the clip that would measure their anxiety levels. 

After a sleepless night, the brain scans showed a shutdown of the medial prefrontal cortex (the region that keeps our anxiety under control) and the brain's deeper emotional centers were on overdrive.

"Without sleep, it's almost as if the brain is too heavy on the emotional accelerator pedal, without enough brake," senior author Matthew Walker said.

Alternatively, after a full night's sleep, the participants' anxiety levels declined significantly, especially for those who experienced more non-rapid-eye movement sleep. After repeating this experiment with another 30 participants, the researchers had the same results. A sleepless night raised anxiety levels up to 30% while achieving deep sleep stabilized emotions and reduced stress and anxiety.

Apparently, we've quite literally been sleeping on a potential cure for anxiety all this time.  

"Deep sleep had restored the brain's prefrontal mechanism that regulates our emotions, lowering emotional and physiological reactivity and preventing the escalation of anxiety," another lead author, Eti Ben Simon, said.

These scientists even took this research a step further and conducted an online study, tracking 280 participants and measuring how their sleep and anxiety levels changed over the course of four days. The results? The amount and quality of sleep each person had the night before could accurately predict how anxious they would feel the next day. While the sample sizes of these studies are quite small—not nearly big enough to start celebrating a cure for anxiety—it'll be interesting to see future studies regarding sleep as a viable treatment option for chronic anxiety disorders.

Anxiety and sleep go hand in hand.

It seems that sleep and anxiety have a codependent relationship. We've known that people who suffer from anxiety disorders tend to have trouble falling and staying asleep, but now research has found that it's a lack of sleep that can cause anxiety in the first place. 

And it's interesting that it's the type of sleep that's most effective in reducing anxiety. Walker explains, "We have identified a new function of deep sleep, one that decreases anxiety overnight by reorganizing connections in the brain. Deep sleep seems to be a natural anxiolytic (anxiety inhibitor), so long as we get it each and every night."

It's pretty exciting that a science-approved method to treat anxiety (a disorder that 40 million Americans alone experience) is one that's free, easy, and bioavailable. Maybe we can start to see psychiatrists and general physicians adding a good night's sleep to their prescription plans.  

Even if you don't suffer from anxiety, it gives you an excuse to hit the snooze button one more time, right? 

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