Losing Just Two Hours of Sleep Takes an Emotional Toll

Losing Just Two Hours of Sleep Takes an Emotional Toll
23.12.2023

Staying up late, sleeping too little, or waking up often can significantly impact a person’s emotional health, according to a new analysis that spans decades of sleep research.

Healthy emotional functioning is essential to our everyday lives, researchers explained. They noted that emotions impact our physical well-being, motivation, decision-making, social interactions, learning, and memory.

The latest findings, which stem from an analysis of sleep research from the past 50 years, appeared this week in the American Psychological Association’s journal, Psychological Bulletin. All of the 154 studies that the researchers used involved studying participants overnight while evaluating different ways that people can lose sleep, such as keeping people awake for extended periods of time, waking them up earlier than usual, or periodically awakening them through the night.

Researchers looked for how those changes in sleep affected people’s emotions, as well as the impact on mood, such as changes in anxiety or depression symptoms.

By combining data for the more than 5,700 people in all the studies, researchers found that reductions in sleep:

  • Reduced positive emotions, like joy.
  • Increased anxiety symptoms, such as rapid heart rate or worrying.
  • Diminished the ability to express emotions, such as recounting the facts around a loved one’s death but not being able to describe how it makes you feel.

“This occurred even after short periods of sleep loss, like staying up an hour or two later than usual or after losing just a few hours of sleep,” said researcher Cara Palmer, PhD, an assistant professor at Montana State University, in a statement. “We also found that sleep loss increased anxiety symptoms and blunted arousal in response to emotional stimuli.” 

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For most impacts that the researchers looked at, the more sleep a person lost, the greater the emotional toll. Participants in the studies were generally healthy and ranged in age from 7 years old to 79 years old.

“Emotions govern virtually every aspect of our daily lives, and depriving ourselves of sleep seems to be a sure way to elect a terrible governor,” said researcher and University of Houston professor of psychology Candice Alfano, PhD, who is also director of the Sleep and Anxiety Center of Houston, in a statement. “Our findings confirm that even when sleep is only mildly deficient, there are measurable negative changes in how we react to everyday events.” 

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