How does sleep deprivation impact you emotionally?
When people think of sleep deprivation, they often hone in on the physical symptoms – the exhaustion that stays with you all day, the headaches, the food cravings, but not so much emphasis is placed on the emotional wear and tear that sleep deprivation can cause, or if it is, usually problems like irritation and poor concentration are discussed.
While it is true that poor sleep can affect your concentration and make you more prone to lashing out, often you can find yourself feeling more unsettled – small tasks suddenly seem monumental and even the smallest of mistakes is a catastrophe. You can start to feel more paranoid and unsure of yourself – did you switch off the iron? Should you ask for time off for that appointment?
You might even have noticed that the slightest bit of criticism feels devastating and jokes that might have made you laugh feel like personal jabs. All this is enough to drag anyone down and you might end up feeling like a nervous wreck, constantly on edge, extremely sensitive and question yourself at every cut and turn.
But how does sleep deprivation produce this type of emotional distress? Well, according to one study published in the Journal of Neuroscience, sleep deprivation can make you feel extremely emotional and this is primarily due to how sleep influences the amygdala – the area of your brain associated with emotion.
In the study, participants were presented with neutral and emotional images. The amygdala, in non-sleep deprived persons, only activated when participants were presented with emotional images whereas, in sleep deprived individuals, the amygdala reacted to both neutral and emotional images. It wasn’t just the amygdala either – researchers also noticed activity in the anterior cingulate cortex, the part of your brain believed to regulate the amygdala1.
So, according to these findings, sleep deprivations essentially robs you of neutrality. Things and events that normally wouldn’t inspire an emotional reaction from you, suddenly put you into emotional overdrive. The molehill essentially becomes an insurmountable mountain.
Does a good night’s sleep make you more fearless?
Okay, so a poor night’s sleep might make you more prone to negative emotions and a bit weepier than usual, but can a good night’s sleep restore your confidence?
That’s what recent research appears to suggest. According to another study published in 2017 in the Journal of Neuroscience, sleep may dampen your reaction towards fearful stimuli.
The study was carried out in relation to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), of which sleep disturbances are a common feature. In this experiment participants were required to monitor their sleep at home where they learned to associate a neutral image with a mild electric shock. Those who managed to get more Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep found that they experienced weaker modulation of activity and connectivity between their amygdala, hippocampus and ventromedial prefrontal cortex as they tried to train themselves to fear the neutral image.2
Essentially, sleep restored a sense of neutrality and they struggled to fear the image, despite their training. This is particularly interesting as REM sleep, the phase of sleep during which you dream, is often associated with how you process emotions. Nobody can prove explicitly when you experience REM sleep but, as I explore in my blog ‘The dangers of dream deprivation’, you need to dream - it helps to hone your survival instincts, consolidate memories and work through complicated emotions.
So, possibly without REM sleep, your amygdala may become more reactive, whereas plenty of good quality REM sleep makes you less susceptible to fear stimuli and more fearless overall. Interesting!
What can you do to improve your confidence?
Be more mindful
Practicing mindfulness allows you to be more aware of your thoughts, both positive and negative, enabling you to see them for what they are – just thoughts. The breathing techniques and practices used in this form of meditation can also help to calm you down – if you’re on edge or feeling overly anxious taking a few moments to focus on your breathing can make a real difference.
If you want to learn more about the benefits of mindfulness and how you can start participation, I’d recommend checking out my blog, ‘Is mindfulness the key to a good night’s sleep.'
Don’t compare yourself to others
When you’re feeling low or constantly on red alert, it can become easy to fall into a cycle of negative thinking. If you’re feeling exhausted and having a generally poor day, it’s likely you’ll start comparing yourself to those around you – your friends, your family, your co-workers – and immediately presume that you’re lacking in some area compared to them.
While you’re buzzing away, struggling to get everything done and finding that you’re getting nowhere, maybe you’ve noticed that so-and-so appears to be breezing through the afternoon, getting through your workload in half the time it takes you to. Or, perhaps you’re making more mistakes than usual and feeling a bit more vulnerable to criticism while someone else at the office seems to be doing everything right.
What’s wrong with you? Why can’t you be more like them? This is a dangerous and extremely negative line of thinking that will only exacerbate any feelings of anxiety whilst taking a serious chunk out of your confidence. Nobody is perfect and comparing yourself to other people is not going to improve your own situation or make you feel any better.
Instead, the best advice I can give is to be kind to yourself. Accept your feelings, recognise them for what they are and take some small steps to make yourself feel better, whether it’s indulging in a hot bath or making plans for the future that will make you happy.
Try some gentle exercise
If you’re feeling tired, stressed and utterly miserable, you’ll probably just want to curl up in a ball away from the rest of humanity until you feel more like your old self. However, forcing yourself do to a little bit of gentle exercise might go a long way towards improve your mood as well as your sleep! As I discuss in my blog, ‘Do you sleep better when you exercise?’ a little exercise can help to improve your sleep quality as well as release happy hormones.
It doesn’t have to be anything too vigorous either – mindful stretching or a brisk walk outside can be enough – so long as your heart’s pumping, it’s doing you good! Just make sure you don’t workout too close to bedtime – exercising right before you’re about to sleep can sometimes disrupt your sleep pattern!
If you’re tired, sleep deprived and feeling rotten, you’ll probably find yourself more tempted by sugary, carb-rich foods like chocolate, crisps and cake. However, while these foods might give you some temporary gratification, in the long run they’re not going to help your situation. In my blog, ‘Is your lack of sleep making you overeat?’ I go into more detail about how what you eat can affect your sleep patterns and sugary foods are right up there when it comes to triggering a poor night’s sleep.
Not to mention, you may end up regretting your binge later and junk food is unlikely to boost your mood. Instead, be more mindful about what you’re putting into your body and focus on foods that are going to make you feel better without the guilt. If you want to learn more about sleep and what you should be eating, check out my blog, ‘What foods can you eat to help you sleep.’
Get a good night’s sleep
Finally, if sleep deprivation is behind your sudden loss of confidence, the most obvious fix would be to try and improve your sleep pattern. The unfortunate thing is if you’re feeling restless and anxious, it’s not exactly going to be conducive to achieving a relaxing night’s sleep. That’s why I’d recommend practicing some of my top sleep hygiene tips and avoiding any stimulants in the lead up to bedtime, including caffeine and sugar foods.
It might also be worth considering our gentle herbal sleep remedy Dormeasan, which contains a soothing blend of Valerian and Hops, helping to gradually relax you in instances of anxiety and allowing you to drift into a more restful sleep. Unlike most sleep medicines, it should leave you feeling refreshed the next day without any groggy side-effects.