emotionIs Abnormal Emotional Processing Behind Insomnia?

This was the title of an article that caught my eye last June as I was flipping through stories on the web. I’ve always thought insomnia probably has something to do with the dysfunctional processing of emotion, so I read on.

The gist of the story was this: investigators at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine found that insomniacs were unable to downregulate their emotions using strategies developed to help people tone down negative emotion.

Here’s How They Found It Out—and More

Fourteen insomniacs and 30 normal sleepers underwent brain scans as they watched a series of negative and neutral images. The negative images provoked lots of activity in the amygdala— the seat of emotion processing and regulation in the brain. This heightened activity occurred in both insomniacs and normal sleepers.

The subjects were also asked to tone down their emotional responses to the negative images using a therapeutic technique called “cognitive reappraisal.” This technique involves the voluntary use of thinking and reasoning to reduce negative emotion. (For example, if you saw a picture of a plane crash, you might try to calm fearful feelings by reminding yourself that plane crashes are very rare, or that your favorite airline has a stellar record on safety, and so on.) In normal sleepers, cognitive reappraisal typically leads to decreased activity in the amygdala and a fading of strong emotion.

Dramatic Results

Not only did cognitive reappraisal fail to help the insomniacs downregulate the negative emotion. Thinking and reasoning about the images created even greater activity in the amygdala than occurred when the insomniacs first saw the disturbing pictures! There was a significant difference in the response of the insomniacs and the normal sleepers in this regard.

This could explain why some of us have such a hard time calming down after a powerfully emotional experience. The emotion centers in our brains are stuck in overdrive, and it’s hard to talk ourselves down enough to fall asleep.

Insomnia and Depression: Two Peas in a Pod?

Lead investigator Peter Franzen sees a relationship between the abnormal processing of emotion that occurs in insomnia and that which occurs in depression. The findings are preliminary, he says, yet “they do suggest a link between insomnia and depression in how the brain deals with emotion. Not just how the brain responds to an emotional stimulus, but while trying to explicitly downregulate emotions through voluntary processes, and perhaps in a way similar to depression—a disorder characterized by impairments in the regulation of emotion.”

Just as talk therapy is recognized as having limitations for people with depression, so cognitive approaches to managing insomnia may turn out to have limited effectiveness as well. For decades depression has been widely understood and treated as a disorder reflecting abnormal brain chemistry. When will it become acceptable to speak of insomnia in these same terms?

Do you have a hard time calming down after emotional experiences? What—if anything–do you do about it?

Posted by Lois Maharg, The Savvy Insomniac

Lois Maharg is an author and journalist.She began her career as a teacher, capped off when she authored a pair of ESL textbooks with her husband. She then became a journalist, working both freelance and as a staff reporter and features writer. She has written about Latino affairs, education, government, health, social issues, exercise, and food. While reporting in Pennsylvania, she won a Keystone Press Award and awards from the Pennsylvania Women’s Press Association. Her stories have been picked up by the Associated Press.


  1. I’m having some luck with mindful breath counting.



  2. Good for you! I’ve had some luck with that, too. Yet when something really arousing happens in the evening–an argument, or a party with lots of stimulating conversation–all bets are off.



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