Think back to a morning when you woke up groggy and feeling like you needed to stay in bed for another two hours. You might recall having to grit out your training that day, but it’s likely that the ill effects of a bad night’s sleep went beyond physical factors. Maybe you were overly emotional, made poor decisions, or felt out of control. If you had to work or go to school, perhaps your brain felt foggy all day. In this post, we’ll examine why that is and then flip the coin to explain how premium sleep can help you become more emotionally stable.
Less Sleep = More Emotional Instability
We often think of how sleep helps our body bounce back from training or competition and supports adaptation to physical stress. But slumber also serves to help you achieve emotional equilibrium, unconsciously destressing you while you lay inert in bed. Just as your muscles, joints, and connective tissues need adequate rest to adapt and repair, so too does your mind require adequate sleep quality and duration to remain in balance.
Soomi Lee, an assistant professor in the School of Aging Studies at the University of South Florida, recently conducted a study to evaluate the connection between sleep patterns and emotional state. The trial, which was published in Annals of Behavioral Medicine, involved 2,000 healthy, well-educated adults. 42 percent of them had at least one night of insufficient shuteye during the study, with an average of one and a half hours less sleep than usual.[i]
This doesn’t sound too drastic, but the participants reported that this single night’s disruption led to them feeling more anxious, nervous, irritable, frustrated, and isolated than usual. Such mental health imbalances continued until they got at least six hours of undisturbed sleep. If their sleep was also sub-optimal (which Lee defined as less than six hours and/or multiple interruptions) on days two and three of the study, their emotional irregularities were amplified. They also began to experience physical ailments such as upper respiratory issues, aches, gastrointestinal problems, and other health concerns as a result of their sleep being compromised.
“Many of us think that we can pay our sleep debt on weekends and be more productive on weekdays,” Lee said in a university press release. “However, results from this study show that having just one night of sleep loss can significantly impair your daily functioning.”[ii]
A previous trial led by Lee and her USF colleagues concluded that as little as 16 minutes of sleep loss can negatively impact job performance, while another of her studies found that sleep deprivation decreases the ability to practice mindfulness, which can be a potent stress-relieving technique, particularly when combined with focused breathwork that down-regulates you from a sympathetic (fight, flight, or freeze) to a parasympathetic (rest and digest) state.
Such ill effects aren’t isolated to the participants in Lee’s work. At least a third of US adults fail to regularly get six hours of sleep a night and many more don’t get the seven or minimum that the National Sleep Foundation recommends for healthy physical and mental function. In an article for this organization, Eric Suni sums up the evidence and asserts that “Sleep is closely connected to mental and emotional health and has demonstrated links to depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, and other conditions. Sufficient sleep, especially REM sleep, facilitates the brain’s processing of emotional information. During sleep, the brain works to evaluate and remember thoughts and memories, and it appears that a lack of sleep is especially harmful to the consolidation of positive emotional content. This can influence mood and emotional reactivity and is tied to mental health disorders and their severity, including the risk of suicidal ideas or behaviors.”[iii]
Connecting the Dots Between Sleep and Emotional Wellbeing
Suni went on to state that the relationship between sleep and mental health is bidirectional. In other words, if you consistently get poor sleep, it will adversely impact your emotions, which in turn makes it harder to sleep. This could be because you lie awake worrying, processing the day’s events through negative filters, or allow cognitive distortions like blaming or catastrophizing to run rampant inside your head.
According to a paper published in Dialogues in Clinical Neuroscience, almost three-quarters of people struggling with chronic depression – which even before the pandemic affected over 300 million worldwide – showed signs of persistent insomnia. “The symptoms cause huge distress, have a major impact on quality of life, and are a strong risk factor for suicide,” wrote the co-authors.[iv] They also noted that in addition to making it harder to fall and stay asleep, depression often leads to “well-documented changes in objective sleep architecture.” In other words, all the different sleep phases – each of which contributes to mental and emotional health in some way – can become topsy-turvy.
If you struggle with depression, anxiety, or other mental health issues, developing daily mental skills practice using an app like Champion’s Mind, Calm, or Headspace will likely benefit you and provide useful tools that help you cope and sleep better. If you need to take that up a notch, you could seek out a psychologist, licensed professional counselor, or practitioner of cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) to help unpack what you’re going through.
You would also do well to limit alcohol consumption to two drinks or less per day, cut off caffeine earlier, and avoid screen time for at least an hour before bedtime. Sleeping in a cool, dark, quiet room in comfortable clothes can help, as might replacing your mattress and pillow. If you can create conditions that are conducive to good sleep, you’ll be more likely to fall asleep sooner, get uninterrupted rest, and wake up feeling more refreshed and emotionally stable.
Need help dialing in your sleep routine and any other area of your performance or recovery? Hit us up and let’s get you going in the right direction!
Miss the first two parts in this series? Catch up by clicking the links below. And check back soon for the fourth and final installment, in which we’ll share the cognitive benefits of sleeping better.
Part 1: How to Solve Your Sleep Problems
[i] Soomi Lee, “Naturally Occurring Consecutive Sleep Loss and Day-to-Day Trajectories of Affective and Physical Well-Being,” Annals of Behavioral Medicine, July 2021, available online at https://academic.oup.com/abm/advance-article-abstract/doi/10.1093/abm/kaab055/6314765?redirectedFrom=fulltext.
[ii] “Drama Llama or Sleep Deprived? New Study Uncovers How Consistent Sleep Loss Impacts Mental and Physical Well-Being,” University of South Florida Newsroom, July 6, 2021, available online at https://www.usf.edu/news/2021/drama-llama-or-sleep-deprived-new-study-uncovers-sleep-loss-impacts-mental-and-physical-well-being.aspx.
[iv] David Nutt, Sue Wilson, and Louise Paterson, “Sleep Disorders as Core Symptoms of Depression,” Dialogues in Clinical Neuroscience, 2008, available online at https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/18979946/.
Tim DiFrancesco, PT, DPT spent 6 seasons as the Head Strength & Conditioning Coach of the Los Angeles Lakers and is the founder of TD Athletes Edge. He is nationally renowned for his evidence-based and scientific approach to fitness, training, nutrition, and recovery for athletes and fitness enthusiasts.