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New Study Reveals Why Deep Sleep Makes You Less Anxious

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If you struggle with anxiety you aren’t alone. Over 18% of the population suffers from an anxiety disorder in any given year. Fortunately it’s highly treatable with a variety of different therapies, medications, and lifestyle changes. According to a recent study, it turns out that getting more high-quality shuteye is one of the most effective anxiety reduction techniques available.

What the study disovered

A new study in the journal Nature Human Behavior confirms what many of us already know: a good night of deep sleep helps reduce anxiety. A research team at UC Berkeley showed that non-rapid eye movement slow-wave sleep – also known as deep sleep – helps stabilize emotions, lowers heart rate, promotes highly-synchronized neural movement between synapses, and lowers blood pressure.

“We have identified a new function of deep sleep, one that decreases anxiety overnight by reorganizing connections in the brain,” said Matthew Walker, professor of neuroscience and psychology at UC Berkeley in a press release. “Deep sleep seems to be a natural anxiolytic (anxiety inhibitor), so long as we get it each and every night.”

This new study is by far the strongest piece of evidence we have linking deep sleep with anxiety relief. The authors of the study believe that this research will help designate sleep as a non-pharmaceutical alternative for treating anxiety disorders.

“Our study strongly suggests that insufficient sleep amplifies levels of anxiety and, conversely, that deep sleep helps reduce such stress,” said lead author Eti Ben Simon, a postdoctoral fellow in the Center for Human Sleep Science at UC Berkeley.

How the study was conducted

The research team used MRI technology and other techniques to observe the brain activity of 18 young adults as they watched “emotionally stirring” video content. The videos were viewed during two different scenarios: The first after a full, restful night of sleep; the second after staying up all night. The participants’ anxiety levels were measured by filling out a survey after viewing each piece of content.

Brain scans of the participants revealed that their medial prefontal cortex shut down after a sleepless night. This is an important finding because the medial prefontal cortex is a part of the brain that plays a major role in regulating anxiety. The scans also showed that the participants’ deeper emotional centers were on overdrive after not sleeping all night.

“Without sleep, it’s almost as if the brain is too heavy on the emotional accelerator pedal, without enough brake,” Walker says.

Participants had their brains scanned again, this time after a full night of sleep. The results showed that participants’ anxiety levels dropped considerably. The individuals who spent the most time in slow-wave NREM sleep showed even steeper drops in their anxiety levels.

Encouraged by the results, researchers followed up by conducting the same study on 30 additional participants, which had the same results. A third, much larger online study was conducted on 280 individuals of varying ages which asked them about their sleep and anxiety levels over the course of four days. This additional research showed that the quality and length of sleep that they attained each night had a direct influence on how anxious they felt the next day. It turns out that this even applied when there were only slight fluctuations in sleep patterns.

“People with anxiety disorders routinely report having disturbed sleep, but rarely is sleep improvement considered as a clinical recommendation for lowering anxiety,” Simon says. “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.”

“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,” professor Walker states in the conclusion. “The best bridge between despair and hope is a good night of sleep.”