Deep Sleep Can Reduce Anxiety, research finds
Last updated: July 14, 2020
Want to reduce anxiousness and anxiety symptoms? Get a good night’s sleep, research confirms.
Research has shown that sleep deprivation can increase cortisol levels dramatically the next day. Cortisol is one of the body’s most powerful stress hormone stimulants.
Since cortisol can suppress the prefrontal cortex part of the brain responsible for shutting down anxiety (also known as the “anxiety brake”), elevated cortisol can make the anxiety brake less effective.
Moreover, cortisol stimulates the amygdala, the part of the brain responsible for fear detection and reaction. An increase in amygdala activity and a decrease in prefrontal cortex ability to shut anxiety down can make for an overly anxious person with less ability to control anxiety.
Now, research has found that a reduction in sleep can cause a 30 percent rise in anxiety levels due to how a reduction in sleep adversely affects the prefrontal cortex.
"Without sleep, it's almost as if the brain is too heavy on the emotional accelerator pedal, without enough brake," study senior author Matthew Walker, a UC Berkeley professor of neuroscience and psychology.
Thankfully, getting a good night’s sleep can restore a normal balance between the amygdala and prefrontal cortex. Getting good sleep can make it easier to shut down anxious thinking.
A common problem, however, is that anxiety disorder, which increases stress hormone production, can interfere with getting good sleep. Consequently, a negative cycle can set up where anxiety has caused sleep disruption, sleep disruption has caused an increase in anxiety, an increase in anxiety can cause more sleep disruption, an increase in disrupted sleep can cause a further increase in anxiety, and so on.
Many anxiety disorder sufferers struggle with sleep.
Fortunately, there are many natural ways to break this cycle so that we can return to good sleep, which in turn gives us more ability to shut down anxious thinking.
We explain how to get disrupted sleep back on track in our “Sleep” chapter (chapter 18) in the Recovery Support area.
If you want better control of your anxiety, get good sleep, especially the non-REM sleep (which occurs in the first few sleep cycles).
You can read the press release for this latest research below:
Stressed to the max? Deep sleep can rewire the anxious brain
UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA - BERKELEY
When it comes to managing anxiety disorders, William Shakespeare's Macbeth had it right when he referred to sleep as the "balm of hurt minds." While a full night of slumber stabilizes emotions, a sleepless night can trigger up to a 30% rise in anxiety levels, according to new research from the University of California, Berkeley.
UC Berkeley researchers have found that the type of sleep most apt to calm and reset the anxious brain is deep sleep, also known as non-rapid eye movement (NREM) slow-wave sleep, a state in which neural oscillations become highly synchronized, and heart rates and blood pressure drop.
"We have identified a new function of deep sleep, one that decreases anxiety overnight by reorganizing connections in the brain," said study senior author Matthew Walker, a UC Berkeley professor of neuroscience and psychology. "Deep sleep seems to be a natural anxiolytic (anxiety inhibitor), so long as we get it each and every night."
The findings, published today, Nov. 4, in the journal Nature Human Behaviour, provide one of the strongest neural links between sleep and anxiety to date. They also point to sleep as a natural, non-pharmaceutical remedy for anxiety disorders, which have been diagnosed in some 40 million American adults and are rising among children and teens.
"Our study strongly suggests that insufficient sleep amplifies levels of anxiety and, conversely, that deep sleep helps reduce such stress," said study lead author Eti Ben Simon, a postdoctoral fellow in the Center for Human Sleep Science at UC Berkeley.
In a series of experiments using functional MRI and polysomnography, among other measures, Simon and fellow researchers scanned the brains of 18 young adults as they viewed emotionally stirring video clips after a full night of sleep, and again after a sleepless night. Anxiety levels were measured following each session via a questionnaire known as the state-trait anxiety inventory.
After a night of no sleep, brain scans showed a shutdown of the medial prefrontal cortex, which normally helps keep our anxiety in check, while the brain's deeper emotional centers were overactive.
"Without sleep, it's almost as if the brain is too heavy on the emotional accelerator pedal, without enough brake," Walker said.
After a full night of sleep, during which participants' brain waves were measured via electrodes placed on their heads, the results showed their anxiety levels declined significantly, especially for those who experienced more slow-wave NREM sleep.
"Deep sleep had restored the brain's prefrontal mechanism that regulates our emotions, lowering emotional and physiological reactivity and preventing the escalation of anxiety," Simon said.
Beyond gauging the sleep-anxiety connection in the 18 original study participants, the researchers replicated the results in a study of another 30 participants. Across all the participants, the results again showed that those who got more nighttime deep sleep experienced the lowest levels of anxiety the next day.
Moreover, in addition to the lab experiments, the researchers conducted an online study in which they tracked 280 people of all ages about how both their sleep and anxiety levels changed over four consecutive days.
The results showed that the amount and quality of sleep the participants got from one night to the next predicted how anxious they would feel the next day. Even subtle nightly changes in sleep affected their anxiety levels.
"People with anxiety disorders routinely report having disturbed sleep, but rarely is sleep improvement considered as a clinical recommendation for lowering anxiety," Simon said. "Our study not only establishes a causal connection between sleep and anxiety, but it identifies the kind of deep NREM sleep we need to calm the overanxious brain."
On a societal level, "the findings suggest that the decimation of sleep throughout most industrialized nations and the marked escalation in anxiety disorders in these same countries is perhaps not coincidental, but causally related," Walker said. "The best bridge between despair and hope is a good night of sleep."
Common Anxiety Symptoms
The combination of good self-help information and working with an experienced anxiety disorder therapist is the most effective way to address anxiety disorder and its many symptoms. Until the core causes of anxiety are addressed - the underlying factors that motivate apprehensive behavior - a struggle with anxiety disorder can return again and again. Identifying and successfully addressing anxiety's underlying factors is the best way to overcome problematic anxiety.
- For a comprehensive list of Anxiety Disorders Symptoms Signs, Types, Causes, Diagnosis, and Treatment.
- Anxiety and panic attacks symptoms can be powerful experiences. Find out what they are and how to stop them.
- How to stop an anxiety attack and panic.
- Free online anxiety tests to screen for anxiety. Two minute tests with instant results. Such as:
- Anxiety 101 is a summarized description of anxiety, anxiety disorder, and how to overcome it.
Return to Anxiety Research section.
Anxietycentre.com: Information, support, and therapy for anxiety disorder and its symptoms, including .
1. Hirotsu, Camila, et al. "Interactions between sleep, stress, and metabolism: From physiological to pathological conditions." Sleep Science, 28, Sep. 2015. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4688585/
2. Folk, Jim and Folk, Marilyn. “The Stress Response.” anxietycentre.com, Nov. 2019
3. Simon, Eti Ben, et al. "Overanxious and underslept."Nature Human Behavior, 4 Nov. 2019. https://www.nature.com/articles/s41562-019-0754-8.
4. Staner, Luc. "Sleep and anxiety disorders." Dialogues in clinical neuroscience, Sep. 2003, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3181635/
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