Sleep and Emotion: Mental Health Awareness Month Part 1

May is Mental Health Awareness Month! Project Sleep believes that mental health and sleep health are closely intertwined. We are excited to share interesting connections between sleep and mental health.

Sleep and emotion are closely intertwined. It’s no surprise that sleep—or lack thereof—affects how we react to stimuli during the day. Multiple studies have found that sleep loss not only increases negative emotional reactions to disruptive events, but also subdues positive benefits of rewarding activities (NIH).

Emotions can also influence sleep. From worrying about an exam the night before to watching disturbing films before bed, insufficiently regulated daily stress can cause sleep disturbances (NIH). This means that the quality and amount of our sleep impacts how we react to emotional events during the day, which then in turn affects our sleep. 

A lot of the research that’s out there right now is pointing in the direction that a single night of sleep is helpful. It’s helpful for processing the memory itself, and it’s also important for emotional regulation in general.”

– Dr. Elaina Bolinger via BBC

What is Emotion?

To understand why sleep and emotion are so closely intertwined, it helps to define what exactly “emotion” is. Emotion is “a complex reaction pattern, involving experiential, behavioral, and physiological elements, by which an individual attempts to deal with a personally significant matter or event” (American Physiological Association). Emotion differs from mood, as it is more short term and typically directed at a source, while mood is long term and not related to a specific event.

Two areas of the brain work together to generate and then adjust our emotional responses:

  1. The amygdala–a.k.a. the limbic system. This is our This is our center for strong emotional reactions.
  2. The prefrontal cortex. This regulates the amygdala by dialing our emotional responses up or down as necessary, dependent on the situation.

When we’re sleep deprived, the connections between the two regions weaken, leaving the amygdala to respond more reactively. This makes us more likely to negatively interpret emotional stimuli and have a harder time changing those reactions.

REM Sleep: “Emotional First-Aid”

Sleep plays a major role in processing and consolidating memories from our day. Dream sleep is believed to be critical for emotional processing, creativity, and problem solving, as it takes new memories and puts them in context from a wider point of view. In his book Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams, Dr. Matthew Walker describes the sleep cycle from an information processing standpoint.

  • Wake State = reception. This is our day-to-day life where we take information in from the world.
  • Stage 2 & 3 = reflection. Here, we begin storing and strengthening new information.
  • REM Sleep = integration. During REM sleep, we integrate this new information with our past experiences and memories, building an ever more accurate model of how the world works.

Emotional memories activate the amygdala, triggering longer processing and reiterations. An article from BBC describes, “Rapid eye movement (REM) sleep is associated with emotional memories, and more REM sleep makes people better at assessing others’ emotional intentions and recalling emotional stories.” Reactivating these memories during REM can remove associated feelings from the memory’s content, while keeping the information intact (NIH).

Adaptive Emotion Regulation

Adaptive emotion regulation, along with good sleep, can also help us in dealing with our emotions. There’s evidence that therapies emphasizing healthy emotion regulation strategies such as acceptance, problem solving, and reappraisal may lessen the burden of low sleep quality and may ease the harmful effects of stressful events on sleep (NIH). One study suggests that using acceptance and problem solving rather than maladaptive strategies such as avoidance, self-criticism, hiding expression, and worry in response to emotion is associated with better mental health (NIH). 

In Summary

Sleep has a profound impact on our emotional well-being and overall mental health. Those who struggle to maintain a healthy and regular sleep schedule, including those with sleep disorders, may face additional challenges when it comes to daily emotional regulation. Next time your fuse feels a bit short, give yourself the benefit of the doubt. Not getting enough sleep could be the culprit!

Written by Anna Marr

It’s normal for people to feel tired or overwhelmed sometimes. If mood changes and feelings of anxiety or unhappiness are severe, or if they last longer than 2 weeks, please consider seeking a medical professional.

If you or someone you know is struggling with mental health or suicidal thoughts, round-the-clock help is available through the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, the Veterans Crisis Line and Military Crisis Line at 1-800-273-8255, and the Crisis Text Line by texting “hello” to 741741.

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