Most of us don’t need science to tell us that sleep and emotion are closely linked. Spend a couple nights with interrupted sleep or talk to any parent of a newborn and the connection is quite clear.
The connection appears not just in everyday life. In certain physical and mental disorders sleep disturbance and emotion dysregulation are hallmark symptoms. Symptoms of one rare disorder, cataplexy, which often co-occurs with the sleep disorder, narcolepsy for example, include sudden muscle weakness when a person experiences strong emotion, such as anger or fear, or exhilaration.
Lack of adequate sleep also is commonly linked with emotional or psychological problems. Examples include depression and PTSD, while sleep disturbances combined with emotional reactivity are key dimensions of bipolar disorder.
And even when lack of sleep isn’t connected to rare disorders or affective psychological problems, it is linked to increased emotionality.
Yelling at traffic more often, bursting into tears over minor grievances, anxious about perceived slights that your rational mind tells you are only part of the picture. These are some examples of the type of intense and overwhelming emotion that we tend to experience when we’re not getting enough sleep.
This relationship between sleep and emotion is not one-way. Lack of sleep may make you feel more intensely, while at the same time, intense feelings, particularly painful emotions, can affect the quality of your sleep. Dreams are linked to emotional experience and emotions during waking hours. Fear, anxiety, sadness, and anger can have a particular impact on dreams. Restless sleep also increases during times of intense emotion. Emotion, then, is causing sleep disturbance, which in turn, causes more intense emotion.
Sleep deprivation can have serious implications for your health. And health problems, such as sleep problems, increase emotional vulnerability. Poor sleep can result in health problems such as increased resting blood pressure, obesity and diabetes (likely connected to hormone imbalances that cause people who are sleep deprived to prefer eating foods that are high in calories and carbohydrates).
So what can you do to improve sleep and decrease emotional vulnerability?
Certain key activities can help to improve the quality of your sleep. These are often referred to as “sleep hygiene.” You can think of them like brushing your teeth or taking a shower. If you want to avoid cavities and gum disease, you need to perform certain daily activities to clean your teeth — dental hygiene. The same is true of sleep. If you want to sleep well, you need to perform certain activities daily to set your body up for restful sleep.
- Commit to a sleep schedule.
It’s important to go to bed and wake up at the same time each day, even on the weekends.
- Get exercise.
But be aware that exercise timing is crucial to the quality of your sleep. Exercise within 5 to 6 hours of bedtime can contribute to wakefulness and sleep difficulties, so try to exercise early in the day.
- Get sun exposure.
Sunshine is essential to regulating our circadian rhythms — our daily cycles of activity and sleep. Try to get natural sunlight for at least 30 minutes each day.
- Create a relaxing routine before bed.
When you take time to slow down and repeat the same relaxing actions each day, you are signaling your body to wind down. Creating a ritual of reading, listening to music or gently stretching before allows your body to get into a state of relaxation before you climb into bed. Be aware that time in front of a screen — watching TV or surfing the Internet — tends to stimulate rather than relax the mind.
- If you’re in bed, but can’t sleep, don’t lie in bed awake.
Spinning your mind, anxiously stewing about problems in your life or worrying about the sleep you’re losing can make it harder to get back to sleep. If you’ve been awake for more than 20 minutes, get up and do some relaxing activity until you feel sleepy. One strategy is to simply stand next to your bed, allowing your limbs and body to feel heavy. Once your body has that sleepy, groggy feeling, try climbing back in bed and see if you drift off.
If sleep problems persist, or if they are extreme, see a doctor. Sleep disturbance can be a sign of physical problems. Breaking the cycle between sleep disturbance and intense emotion can help you to improve all areas of your life.