Stress and negative emotion felt strongly after sleep deprivationIt’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.

Study Particulars

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?

Posted by Lois Maharg, The Savvy Insomniac

Lois Maharg has worked with language for many years. She taught ESL, coauthored two textbooks, and then became a reporter, writing about health, education, government, Latino affairs, and food. Her lifelong struggle with insomnia and interest in investigative reporting motivated her to write a book, The Savvy Insomniac: A Personal Journey through Science to Better Sleep. She now freelances as an editor and copy writer at On the Mark Editing.


  1. There is nothing worse than not being able to sleep..



  2. Hello Lois,

    I concur absolutely. Did they mention how to handle this? Any possible solutions? Do they mention antidepressants as a possible mitigation tool?





    1. Hi Mike,

      In this study researchers were only looking to see how sleep deprivation affected people’s reactions to disturbing images and the chemicals in their brains. They found clear evidence that even normal sleepers were much less able to manage emotion after a single night’s sleep loss. In people prone to anxiety the effect was even more pronounced.

      Yes, some medications we call “antidepressants” are also used to treat anxiety. I’ve heard they can be quite effective in helping scale down feelings of stress. Antidepressants are unscheduled drugs and are believed to be safer than benzodiazepine drugs, which are also prescribed for anxiety. Physicians are more willing to prescribe antidepressants for anxiety than they are to prescribe benzodiazepines like Xanax and Ativan.

      My advice would be to talk about your anxiety with your doctor and see what course of treatment he or she recommends.



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