It’s a vicious circle, as many people with chronic insomnia will attest. Stress and worry lead to bad nights, and the resulting sleep loss seems to magnify the worries, which in turn leads to worse nights and soaring anxiety, and on and on. Once the cycle is set in motion, it can feel impossible to stop.
Researchers at UC Berkeley have shown that sleep deprivation amplifies anxiety in people prone to worry. In a study written up in Science Daily, the researchers found that a single sleepless night greatly ramped up neural activity in two brain regions associated with the processing of emotion: the amygdala and the insular cortex. Excess activity in these two regions is common in people that have generalized anxiety disorder, panic attacks, and PTSD.
Eighteen healthy young adults were the subjects in this experiment. They spent two nights in UC Berkeley’s Sleep and Neuroimaging Laboratory. They got a good night’s sleep on the first night. The second night, they stayed awake.
After both nights, they watched a slide show containing neutral and highly disturbing images, during which time their brains were scanned using functional MRI. Before each image, a visual cue was presented to create anticipation for the image that would follow. A yellow circle indicated that a neutral image such as a bicycle was going to appear. A red minus sign portended a disturbing image such as the body of a burn victim. And a white question mark signaled that either a neutral or a shocking image would flash upon the screen.
An Emotional Roller Coaster
The red minus sign and the white question mark triggered enormous anticipatory anxiety in the subjects when they were sleep deprived, as shown by the excessive neural activity occurring in the emotion centers of their brains. And in sleep-deprived subjects who were naturally prone to anxiety, the activity in the amygdala and insular cortex was sky high.
The subjects in this experiment were not insomnia sufferers. But if sleep deprivation magnifies anxiety in healthy, normal sleepers, it’s bound to boost anxiety in us. I for one am as familiar with this pattern as with the back of my hand. Bad nights heighten whatever anxiety I may be feeling, in turn begetting more bad nights and even greater anxiety.
No wonder insomniacs sometimes feel like we’re on an emotional roller coaster and powerless to make it stop.
How does insomnia affect you emotionally?