A study from UC Berkeley investigated how a lack of sleep affects the brain’s level of anxiety. Specifically, the researchers focused on anticipatory anxiety, which is when there is nothing to be worried about at the moment, but when something bad is about to happen or might happen soon. For example, an upcoming public speaking engagement or trip by airplane might induce anticipatory anxiety. The research found that sleep deprivation causes people to feel anticipatory anxiety much more acutely than they would otherwise.

For this study, the research team recruited 18 healthy young adults with no anxiety disorders. At the UC Berkeley Sleep and Neuroimaging Laboratory, the subjects had their brains scanned while viewing images. The first round of scanning was after a good night’s sleep, the second after a night of poor sleep. To test anticipatory anxiety, each image was preceded by a symbol: a red minus sign (for unpleasant images), a yellow circle (for neutral images) or a white question mark (for an unknown image type). The scientists were able to measure anticipatory anxiety based on the brain’s response to the symbols.

When sleep deprived, the subjects’ neural activity in the emotion-regulating sections of the brain—particularly the amygdala and the insular cortex—spiked when anticipating the unpleasant images. This brain activity was even more significant in the participants who had a propensity for being anxious to begin with; lack of sleep compounded the subject’s existing anxiety.

By understanding that sleep deprivation is a cause of anxiety, the researchers concluded that sleep therapy may be beneficial for people who have anxiety disorders. “By restoring good quality sleep in people suffering from anxiety, we may be able to help ameliorate their excessive worry and disabling fearful expectations,” said Matthew Walker, professor of psychology and neuroscience at UC Berkeley. Walker also explained that sleep is fundamental to mental health. Understanding the link between sleep and psychiatric disorders—like anxiety—informs understanding about both the cause of such disorders and effective treatments.

This study was published in the Journal of Neuroscience.

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