We are all well aware of the fact that sleep is crucial for our wellbeing. When we don’t get enough sleep, the next day we feel exhausted, grumpy and irritable. What is more, the lack of sleep can have serious harmful effects on our overall physical and mental health in the long run.
The majority of experts in this field claim that we need from 7 to 8 hours of sleep to be well rested and to stay healthy, and they even suggest that interrupted sleep is as bad as not getting enough sleep.
However, up until recently, it was still unknown in which exact ways lack of sleep can affect our emotions. According to a study conducted by Talma Hendler of Israel’s Tel Aviv University, sleep deprivation can seriously impact our emotional state, and in this article, you will find out how.
Talma Hendler’s research titled “Losing Neutrality: The Neural Basis of Impaired Emotional Control without Sleep” was published in The Journal of Neuroscience in 2015, and it consisted of 18 adult individuals who voluntarily accepted to stay awake the whole night, after which they had a good night’s sleep.
After both nights, all of the participants were given the same simple test and their brain activity was measured using electroencephalogram (EEG) and functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI).
In this test, the participants were asked to identify the movement of the yellow dots over 3 different pictures that served as distractions – the picture of a cat, which was considered to be emotionally positive, the picture of a mutilated body, considered to be emotionally negative, and the picture of the spoon, considered to be emotionally neutral.
What the results showed was that when the participants got enough sleep, they were able to be much quicker and more precise at telling in which direction the yellow dots moved over the emotionally neutral image.
On the other hand, when the participants didn’t get any sleep, they were equally distracted by all 3 images, including the neutral one, and couldn’t be precise at identifying the movement of the dots.
Based on these results, Handler concluded that “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”.
She also added that “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, if such a big change can be noticed after only one sleepless night, imagine how long-term sleep deprivation can affect your reasoning.
What is the reason for this?
The main goal of this research was not only to determine whether the lack of sleep will affect our emotions but also to identify what exactly happens in our brains when we don’t sleep.
Hendler found out that the reason why the participants were unable to block out even the emotionally neutral image after a sleepless night is that sleep deprivation largely affects the part of our brain which is responsible for the processing of emotions, known as the amygdala.
In addition, there was a decreased activity in the participants’ prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for decision making and planning.
What this means in practice is that if we are not getting sufficient amount of sleep, our cognitive processes will be compromised, so we won’t be able to make good decisions and to differentiate between what is important and what is not.
So, the next time you find yourself bursting into tears or simply being overly agitated over some trivial matters, remember that you might just be sleep deprived.
What else can happen?
There are so many ways sleeplessness can affect your emotional state and your daily life. For instance:
1. It will affect your close relationships – If you don’t get enough sleep, you will be more prone to getting into arguments with your partner, family members or your close friends. Lack of sleep causes us to be overly sensitive and irritable, so we are more likely to fight with them over things that are not really relevant.
Moreover, when our brain is tired, we lack empathy and are unable to understand other people and their emotions and to find effective solutions for our conflicts.
2. Your perception of other people will be changed – In order to be able to interact with other people around us in an effective way, we need to “read” their emotions and analyze their facial expressions and gestures. However, if you didn’t sleep well, these tasks become significantly harder for your brain, which can lead to stereotypic and prejudiced thinking.
For example, we can mistake someone’s friendly advice for a rather negative criticism.
3. You will be unable to cope with stress – No matter how well we sleep, it is inevitable for stress to occur from time to time, especially in the work environment. So, the question is – will you be able to deal with that stress?
If you don’t get enough sleep, chances are that you will be so overwhelmed with everything that is going on around you, that you won’t be able to find effective ways to overcome your stress and calm yourself down.
As you can see, lack of sleep can mean so much more than just feeling tired. While the experts were aware of various negative effects of sleep deprivation on our physical and mental health for ages, now it is clear just how our emotional state can be affected. So, the best thing you can do for yourself is to make sure you get a good night’s sleep on a regular basis!