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Sleep Can Reduce Anxiety in Worriers, Study Shows

By Sara Battista, NAMI Communications Intern

New research published this June in the Journal of Neuroscience suggests that the lack of sleep commonly associated with anxiety disorders may actually exacerbate symptoms of worrying. Results from the study strongly support the theory that sleep loss triggers the excessive anticipatory brain activity associated with anxiety, indicating that maintaining a healthy sleep pattern can help alleviate symptoms of anxiousness.

While past research has shown that people with anxiety disorders tend to show hyperactivity in two major emotional brain regions known as the amygdala and anterior insula cortex, researchers from the present study were the first to establish a pattern of causation by directly testing the impact of sleep deprivation on anticipatory brain responses preceding emotionally salient events.


The study conducted at the University of California, Berkeley examined the brains of 18 healthy adults, once while sleep-deprived and again while well-rested. Researchers used fMRI scans to monitor brain activity while participants viewed a series of either neutral or disturbing images. Prior to viewing the images, participants were primed with visual cues intended to trigger anticipatory anxiety. The cues depicted a red minus sign to warn for unpleasant images, a yellow circle to warn for neutral images or an ambiguous white question mark intended to provoke feelings of more intense anticipation in viewers.  


The fMRI scans revealed that when participants were sleep deprived, they showed heightened activity in the emotional brain regions of the amygdala and insula cortex. Furthermore, for the participants who were already prone to experiencing anxiety, results were even more intensified— as those with the highest levels of trait anxiety showed the greatest increase in anticipatory insula activity when sleep deprived. These scans demonstrate that sleep disruption may aggravate anxiousness due to the impact of sleep loss on anticipatory brain function.


The results from this study are particularly useful for those living with anxiety disorders including panic disorder, generalized anxiety disorder and posttraumatic stress disorder, as they are especially sensitive to the effects of sleep deprivation.  As head researcher Matthew Walker said, “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.”  


Moreover, the findings have strong therapeutic implications, showing that sleep restoration may be beneficial in relieving symptoms of worrying for those living with anxiety disorders and highly anxious individuals alike. “By restoring good quality sleep in people suffering from anxiety, we may be able to help ameliorate their excessive worry and disabling fearful expectations,” Walker said. Since those living with anxiety disorders commonly experience co-occurring sleep abnormalities, researchers from this study strongly believe that sleep therapy is a practical treatment option.  


“This discovery ultimately illustrates how important sleep is to our mental health,” said Walker. “It also emphasizes the intimate relationship between sleep and psychiatric disorders, both from a cause and a treatment perspective.” In short, those who are either living with an anxiety disorder or simply prone to experiencing anxiety on a regular basis should maintain a healthy sleep pattern in order to help manage symptoms of worrying.