Feeling edgy? Get some sleep

UC BERKELEY (US) — A lack of sleep, which is common in anxiety disorders, may play a key role in firing up brain regions that contribute to excessive worrying.

Sleep deprivation amplifies anticipatory anxiety by activating the brain’s amygdala and insular cortex—regions associated with emotional processing.

The resulting pattern mimics the abnormal neural activity seen in anxiety disorders.

Furthermore, research suggests that innate worriers—people who are naturally more anxious and therefore more likely to develop a full-blown anxiety disorder—are acutely vulnerable to the effect of insufficient sleep.

“These findings help us realize that those people who are anxious by nature are the same people who will suffer the greatest harm from sleep deprivation,” says Matthew Walker, professor of psychology and neuroscience at the University of California, Berkeley.

The results suggest that people suffering from such maladies as generalized anxiety disorder, panic attacks, and post-traumatic stress disorder, may benefit substantially from sleep therapy.

“If sleep disruption is a key factor in anxiety disorders, as this study suggests, then it’s a potentially treatable target,” Walker says. “By restoring good quality sleep in people suffering from anxiety, we may be able to help ameliorate their excessive worry and disabling fearful expectations.”

While previous research has indicated that sleep disruption and psychiatric disorders often occur together, this latest study, published in the Journal of Neuroscience, is the first to causally demonstrate that sleep loss triggers excessive anticipatory brain activity associated with anxiety.

“It’s been hard to tease out whether sleep loss is simply a byproduct of anxiety, or whether sleep disruption causes anxiety,” says Andrea Goldstein, a doctoral student in psychology and lead author of the study. “This study helps us understand that causal relationship more clearly.”

In their experiments, researchers scanned the brains of 18 healthy young adults as they viewed dozens of images, first after a good night’s rest, and again after a sleepless night. The images were neutral, disturbing, or alternated between both.

Participants in the experiments reported a wide range of baseline anxiety levels, but none fit the criteria for a clinical anxiety disorder. After getting a full night’s rest at the lab, which researchers monitored by measuring neural electrical activity, their brains were scanned via functional MRI as they waited to be shown, and then viewed 90 images during a 45-minute session.

To trigger anticipatory anxiety, researchers primed the participants using one of three visual cues prior to each series of images. A large red minus sign signaled to participants that they were about to see a highly unpleasant image, such as a death scene. A yellow circle portended a neutral image, such as a basket on a table.

Perhaps most stressful was a white question mark, which indicated that either a grisly image or a bland, innocuous one was coming, and kept participants in a heightened state of suspense.

When sleep-deprived and waiting in suspenseful anticipation for a neutral or disturbing image to appear, activity in the emotional brain centers of all the participants soared, especially in the amygdala and the insular cortex. Notably, the amplifying impact of sleep deprivation was most dramatic for those people who were innately anxious to begin with.

“This discovery illustrates how important sleep is to our mental health,” says Walker. “It also emphasizes the intimate relationship between sleep and psychiatric disorders, both from a cause and a treatment perspective.”

The National Institute of Mental Health funded the research.

Source: UC Berkeley

chat21 Comments


  1. cathy

    Interesting article, I have been suffering with lack of sleep for several months. I have high anxiety etc…but this article doesn’t say how to fix the problem?? How does one get sleep????

  2. Bill

    Sleep deprivation and anxiety are directly linked in more ways than one. Worse, fueling up on coffee the next morning only adds more anxiety since caffeine is one of the top three anxiety triggers along with sugar and alcohol.
    Bill B.

  3. Ed

    Interesting. If only we lived in culture that valued a slower pace of life. “Work at a breakneck pace!” “Get enough sleep or go a little insane!” Good luck to all of us working that out.

  4. Steve

    This interests me greatly. I have been diagnosed with panic disorder. I have not had a ‘normal’ sleep patern for at least 10 years and quite often stay awake 24 hours at a time.

  5. Synapse


    It depends on your reason for not getting sleep.

    1. If you just don’t have enough time to sleep, then I think re-prioritizing is in order. If we assume that your high anxiety is destructive to your life, you have to evaluate whether it’s more destructive to sacrifice an extra hour or two a day for sleep or to sacrifice however many hours of your day that are lost due to your anxiety (not to mention your quality of life).

    2. If you have trouble sleeping, then there may be several things to fix, but the first thing to do would be get a sleep study done. They could tell you that you have sleep apnea and prescribe a CPAP, or they could find out that you’re tossing and turning all night, in which case perhaps a mild SSRI or sleep aid could help you out.

    Don’t take this as medical advice please. The point is just: if you know your reason for lack of sleep is scheduling, fix that. Else, address it by seeking a sleep study!

  6. zombie

    I worked a graveyard shift for 2 years, and I sometimes went days without sleep. This article makes sense of my anxiety. I’ve gotten a lot better after switching to a swing shift at my job because I get to sleep better. And I’ve replaced rockstars with green tea.

  7. Belinda

    What if the reason you can’t sleep can’t be fixed. Two screaming children who don’t want to sleep for years, anyone?

  8. jewelsie

    This article is very interesting indeed! Very true for me personally, too. Cutting back on coffee to just a cup in the morning, or none at all, is necessary to get a good night’s sleep. Also, some people need more sleep than others. I have to get 8-9 hrs. a night or I’m not feeling well the next day. Jittery, anxious and lethargic. Proper brain function also depends on sleeping 4-5 hrs. straight through without awakening.

  9. Nyx Reva

    Interesting. There have been several times where because of anxiety I CAN’T sleep, but perhaps I’m more stressed in the daytime than I realize.

  10. Andrew


    Having suffered something similar (though not necessarily identical) myself, I can empathize with your feeling. Lack of sleep and anxiety unfortunately tend to reinforce each other, regardless of the original underlying cause.

    In my case, there was a great deal of mental and emotional stress that started ramping up my anxiety levels and also led to lack of sleep. That in turn made me more anxious, which made it harder to sleep, etc etc. It’s a really terrifying feeling, thinking “am I ever going to manage to sleep properly again?” and laying awake at night knowing the minutes are slowly ticking by and you’re still not asleep, and having that happen day after day, week after week.

    For me, the solution was getting at the root cause of what had started me down that path of increased stress and resolving or accepting it. Some prescription drugs from my GP had helped me get by for a few years, but seeing a counsellor (over the course of a year) and then fixing the underlying emotional and psychological concerns was what really solved things. I had been terribly unhappy in a particular aspect of my life, and that needed to change. The change was what helped.

    Synapse’s suggestions about making enough time for sleep, and possibly having a sleep study done are great ideas as well. Sleep issues and anxiety are frustrating and complex, and don’t necessarily have an easy solution.

    There are little steps that you can start taking as well. Bill’s remarks about coffee, alcohol and sugar had been echoed by my doctor. I have cut out caffeine for the last three years (other than a very occasional cup of black tea) because it is a major trigger for my anxiety. Your mileage may vary, but it’s somewhere to start.

    All that said, I recommend seeing a medical professional about your sleep issues. Hopefully you live somewhere that provides you with quality, affordable (or free) healthcare and are able to seek medical assistance without breaking the bank.

    Good luck!

  11. Crystal

    Belinda: Here us a good way: take children to child care or drop off at parents house to get sleep

  12. Belinda

    At 3am? :) You obviously don’t have children. I have no family here. My point is that, it’s difficult enough not getting sleep, but not being able to get sleep because of babies and toddler needs, is sheer folly. Any parent knows that.

  13. Mel

    Belinda: I’ve been there, and without family to help it can take its toll, but the problem here is you need to look at what’s keeping the kids awake. If you are keeping them up late to tire them out, stop. I don’t have a source, but I’ve read elsewhere that this is a common mistake among young parents. The opposite approach is best, start a nightly routine, dinner, bath (using lavendar and chamomile in bath helps a lot, lotion too after bath dry skin will keep kids awake), 3mg or less of melatonin before bed is usually safe for kids (depending on their age), but check with their pediatrician to be sure. Start an hour earlier to bed than you normally do, even if it’s not dark out tell them to just lie down and read a book or read to them. If they cannot be still for it you may have to look at why. Colic? ADHD? I know that gets tossed around a lot, but it is real, and there is treatment that I can say from experience works. You are no good to your kids stressed out with no sleep, so if you can get their friends parents to have a sleep over (warn them beforehand) to get yourself ready to start a new routine ask for help. I know it’s not easy, but sometimes we have to ask for help. I can tell you they do grow out of it, but it can be absolutely no comfort at 3am night after night when you know that is years away. Getting healthy sleep takes work, it won’t just happen and there is no quick fix, just keep working at it and find what works for you and your children.

  14. Belinda

    Hi Mel,

    Thank you. It’s largely there age, 4 years and 16mobths. It’s very common for a baby of this age to be wakeful as the brain has developments. There are no underlying causes. It’s just a typical baby that needs to learn to resettle herself through sleep cycles. I feel studies about sleep problem could look at the baby years, how parents sleep train there children and more importantly how to. I know many families who have issues around sleep and the torture of not completing a five hour cycle for the brain and body to replenish.
    When this occurs over years I’m sure it sets up a parent, in my family the mother, for a vicious cycle which possibly needs to be broken. So there are two issues here, how to train children to sleep, resettling after sleep cycles and also how the mother can learn to bring down the anxiety caused from lack of vital 5 hour sleep and bring balance to the family as a whole.

  15. Preschool Teacher/Supernanny


    I am a full time year round preschool teacher (previous supernanny & babysitter).

    It is understandable that you are losing sleep over the children in your care, BUT IT IS NOT NECESSARY TO LOSE SLEEP OVER A CHILD IN YOUR CARE PAST THEIR INFANCY!

    The sustainable way to be a loving patient care provider for children is to be loving and patient with yourself. Get quality sleep. Prioritize it. Identify the challenges & barriers that prevent you from getting good quality sleep and commit to solving that problem first.

    If you are happy & healthy the children will (generally) be as well..

    Empower yourself with some tools from a child care philosophy called

    There’s a face book tip of the day you can get for free
    There is a GREAT “End the Bed Time Blues” article THAT WORKS for kids AND parents.

    Give yourself the gift of love and logic tools in your child care toolbox.

    You and the children will all benefit when you use love and logic to face your challenges.

    P.S. it works with grown up to grown up challenges too! 😉

    Enjoy your children & a many good nights of sleep.

    Sweet dreams…

    With love,

    Miss Amanda

  16. Barry

    Hi all,

    I’ve found the article and comments helpful and thought I’d share my own dilemma to further the conversation and/or see if I’m alone in this situation. Rightly so we’ve discussed issues sleeping with infants and children in the house, but as my wife and I are currently childless I will not pretend to be able to understand that experience.

    I’ve been diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder, some of which stems from a childhood trauma and can manifest itself in PTSD type symptoms. I also was diagnosed with sleep apnea and now use a CPAP nightly. For those of you hesitating to take sleep study, DO IT. I have no idea how I survived three years of working full time, attaining my masters degree, etc. all at the same time without the machine. If it works for you, it’s life changing. As far as the anxiety goes I’m on a daily SSRI and another that helps boost the SSRI’s efficacy.

    My wife has been suffering from chronic back pain and nausea. It has been years of surgeries, recoveries, etc. The most recent complications landed me on the couch for 6 months. My wife has been unable to get on a normal sleep cycle while recovering and that leads to her being awake in bed when I’m trying to go to sleep. I cannot continue sleeping on the couch and due to the medical bills we are approaching bankruptcy. That puts another bed for me in another room out of the question.

    If anyone else has any experience with their partners that they can relate to or provide any advice it would be much appreciated.

  17. dwbVG

    812571 464984Outstanding read, I just passed this onto a friend who was doing some research on that. And he really bought me lunch since I discovered it for him smile So let me rephrase that: Thank you for lunch! 352754

  18. Sam

    not kidding, thanks for info I already know except for the part on how to fix it!


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  21. Daniel O.

    Belinda, I’m with you, same here with our kids, we have 3 kids that all have sleep issues, and even when they do sleep they get up super early most of the time. There’s no easy answer, you just got to work through it, and try many different approaches. If we had family close by it would be a lot easier!

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