How Sleep Affects Your Emotions
We all have those nights where we can’t sleep. You sit awake with your mind racing.
You want to go to sleep. You’ve even got up, moved around, and did some reading in an attempt to tire yourself. But nothing seems to work.
Those nights are the worst. You can just imagine what you’re going to feel like tomorrow.
Tired. And grumpy.
But there’s another side-effect that often goes along with a sleepless night. Not only are you a zombie the next day, but you also won’t have as much control over your emotions.
There may be a good reason that you act a little hostile towards others after not getting enough sleep.
You may not be able to help it.
Research from Tel Aviv University – which was published in the Journal of Neuroscience – says that when sleep goes out the window, so does the ability to hold emotions back.
And it can happen even after just one night of sleeplessness.
Even the lead researcher, Talma Hendler, was surprised at what was found. She comments on how the brain reacts:
“It turns out we lose our neutrality. The ability of the brain to tell what’s important is compromised. It’s as if suddenly everything is important.”
So a kind of switch gets flipped. We can usually dismiss trivial events that happen to us and around us.
Without sleep, though, everything becomes urgent. Everything becomes a big deal. And we lose our ability to control our emotions.
The researchers took adult subjects and ran two separate brain tests. One following a full nights sleep and a second with little sleep.
The first test had people track small yellows dots over different images. Some of the images were emotionally charged (good and bad), while others were neutral.
When the participants had a good nights rest, the scientists noticed different brain responses to the images. When lacking sleep though, two things were noticed.
Not only were people less accurate in the task, but the brain responses were also no longer different.
Ben-Simon was another researcher involved in the study. He said this:
“It could be that sleep deprivation universally impairs judgment, but it is more likely that a lack of sleep causes neutral images to provoke an emotional response.”
It seems there’s an area of the brain – the amygdala – that is particularly affected by lack of sleep. This area is responsible for emotional processing in the brain.
In a separate experiment, participants performed a difficult cognitive task while being monitored by an MRI machine. During the task, scientists displayed distracting background images that were both neutrally and emotionally charged.
A difference in brain activity was noticed in the amygdala for participants who had little sleep. They found that participants not only had trouble blocking out the emotional pictures, but the neutral ones as well.
The team also found that there was less activity in the participants’ prefrontal cortex. An area of our brain that is used for planning and decisions.
Not getting sleep causes these two areas of the brain to become scrambled, letting your emotions run about unchecked.
Sleep has been shown to affect our willpower. This is another piece of evidence that shows how our cognitive processes and decisions can be affected by a lack of sleep. Talma comments:
“These results reveal that, without sleep, the mere recognition of what is an emotional and what is a neutral event is disrupted. We may experience similar emotional provocations from all incoming events, even neutral ones, and lose our ability to sort out more or less important information.”
And that can have important consequences. It not only affects how we act, but how we react to others. It affects our behavior and our decisions. Talma continues:
“This can lead to biased cognitive processing and poor judgment as well as anxiety.”
Sleep is a vital part of our brain health. It plays a big role in keeping sharp and staying balanced mentally and emotionally. That’s a big reason why it’s a core pillar of brain health.