If you’ve ever felt groggy after a short restless night of sleep, it may be because you’re suffering from symptoms just a stone’s throw away from clinical anxiety disorder. A new study presented at this year’s annual Society for Neuroscience meeting revealed that missing just one night of restorative sleep results in a pattern of brain activity that looks a lot like anxiety.
Emotional systems fail when deprived of sleep
After participants in the study were deprived of a whole night’s sleep, they were shown emotionally distressing scenes while lying down in a fMRI, a machine which can detect brain activity. There was significantly more activity within emotional centers like the amygdala following the night without sleep than the following day after a night of restful, restorative sleep.
Along with the amygdala, the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex also showed increased activity after the sleepless night. These deal mostly with negative emotions, and can be seen in states of hyperactivity within patients suffering from anxiety disorders.
Less activity was also monitored in the medial pre-front cortex, a part of the brain which helps out in emotion regulation and turns on when we try and calm ourselves down. The lack of activity indicates a reduced ability to control one’s emotions.
“When we are well rested, regions that help us regulate emotions are the ones that help keep us less anxious and keep us calm, and those regions are very sensitive to sleep loss,” says Ben-Simon, who led the research.
A vicious cycle
Ben-Simon thinks that these emotional centers need the restorative part of deep, non rapid-eye movement, sleep in order to recover, and can only allow us to wake up feeling anxiety-free if we reach this level of sleep.
Commenting on the new research, Clifford Saper, a professor of neurology and neuroscience at Harvard Medical School notes the significance of understanding a ”vicious cycle,” where sleep loss makes anxiety worse, while anxiety snatches away more hours sleep.