Staying out all hours and making do on a few winks of sleep might not just make you look rough in the morning—it could actually cause you to feel seriously stressed out and edgy throughout the day.

A new study from the Journal of Neuroscience found that when you’re sleep deprived, it increases the odds that you’ll get “anticipatory anxiety”—that sense of dread you feel before a big test, presentation, or meeting with the boss. That’s because the loss of deep sleep fires up your amygdala and insular cortex, the regions of your brain responsible for emotional processing, as well as your fight or flight response.

Researchers scanned the brains of 18 healthy young adults as they viewed a series of images, first after a good night’s rest and later after a night without sleep. The images were either neutral, disturbing, or alternated between both. Clinical anxiety disorder had not been diagnosed in any of the participants.

Results showed that for sleep-deprived people waiting in anticipation for a neutral or disturbing image to appear, activity in the emotional brain centers of all the participants soared.

“Until this point, researchers weren’t sure if sleep loss was simply a by-product of anxiety, or the other way around,” says Andrea Goldstein, Ph.D., lead author of the study. 

The new study indicates the latter—that not getting enough sleep can actually trigger anxiety.
The researchers also found that those of us who tend to already be worriers—people who are naturally anxious and more likely to develop a full-blown anxiety disorder—are the ones who feel the greatest impact of a lack of sleep.

“This discovery illustrates how important sleep is to our mental health,” Matthew Walker says.


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