November 05, 2019
2 min read

Deep sleep may reduce anxiety

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Matthew Walker
Eti Ben Simon

Sleep deprivation for one night can result in a 30% rise in anxiety levels, which can be mitigated by deep sleep, according to results published in Nature Human Behaviour.

In the past 20 years of research, we have not found a single psychiatric disorder in which sleep is normal,Matthew Walker, PhD, professor of neuroscience and psychology at University of California, Berkeley, and Eti Ben SimonPhD, a postdoctoral fellow in the Center for Human Sleep Science at University of California, Berkeley, told Healio Psychiatry. “Anxiety is no exception. Nearly 80% of anxiety patients complain about their sleep, including not being able to fall asleep or stay asleep. Yet poor sleep is often simply thought of as a symptom of the disorder, not as one of the instigating or maintaining factors of anxiety.

Walker, Ben Simon and colleagues used functional MRI and polysomnography in a series of experiments to scan the brains of 18 young adults while they viewed “emotionally stirring” videos after both a full night of sleep and a sleepless night. They used the State-Trait Anxiety Inventory to measure participants’ anxiety levels following each session.

Brain scans revealed a shutdown of the medial prefrontal cortex — a brain region that regulates anxiety — following a night of no sleep. Further, the brain’s deeper emotional centers were overactive.

The researchers used electrodes to measure participants’ brain waves during a night of full sleep and found that anxiety levels declined significantly after receiving full sleep — especially for participants who experienced high amounts of slow-wave non-rapid eye movement sleep, also known as deep sleep.

They replicated the results of this study in an overnight sleep study of 32 additional participants and garnered further data in an online study that tracked 154 people of all ages about changes in sleep and anxiety levels over four consecutive days. These studies revealed that the quality and amount of sleep participants received from one night to the next predicted anxiety levels of the next day, with even subtle nightly sleep changes exhibiting an effect.

Our findings point to the importance of sufficient sleep in managing anxiety," Walker and Ben Simon said. "That is, if doctors aim to treat the sleep complaints of individuals with anxiety using methods such as cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia, it may provide a significant clinical benefit and decrease the need for medication.” – by Joe Gramigna

Disclosures: The authors report no relevant financial disclosures.