Getting enough sleep is essential for overall health. When we are sleep deprived there is an increased risk of being in an accident due to fatigue, making poor decisions, and accomplishing less during the day. Long periods of sleep deprivation can negatively impact the brain as well, causing accelerated cell death, since sleep is when the brain “cleans itself” getting rid of unnecessary cells. In sleep-deprived mice, this process went awry and healthy cells still needed by the brain were destroyed.
New research from the SUNY Binghamton, shows another problem that losing sleep could create. Their study found that getting less than 8 hours of sleep each night is associated with repetitive negative thoughts that can’t be quieted and could lead to depression and anxiety. Repetitive Negative Thinking, or RNT, is a new focus in research because it’s a common finding in patients who have depression and anxiety. In depressed patients, the RNT tends to be about past events. With anxiety, the focus is usually future events.
Binghamton University Professor of Psychology Meredith Coles and graduate student Jacob Nota looked at the duration of sleep and how often subjects had interrupted or shortened sleep cycles. Study participants were patients who reported having “moderate to high” levels of negative thoughts that they could not shake off. Worry and rumination on these repetitive thoughts was a problem, and the team wanted to see if it could be related to sleep issues. The participants were shown pictures that were meant to evoke an emotional response, such as photos of guns or knives, or a dangerous animal in the category of negative images. They were also shown positive pictures like photos of nature or happy events and neutral ones that included photos of household objects and food items. The team tracked the attention paid to these photos by recording eye movements. Participants who had sleep disruptions had a much harder time pulling their attention away from negative images, while they were able to move on from the neutral or positive images easily.
Dr. Coles explained, “We found that people in this study have some tendencies to have thoughts get stuck in their heads, and their elevated negative thinking makes it difficult for them to disengage with the negative stimuli that we exposed them to. While other people may be able to receive negative information and move on, the participants had trouble ignoring it. We realized over time that this might be important — this repetitive negative thinking is relevant to several different disorders like anxiety, depression and many other things. This is novel in that we’re exploring the overlap between sleep disruptions and the way they affect these basic processes that help in ignoring those obsessive negative thoughts.”
More research will need to be done to figure out where exactly the connection is between sleep and conditions like depression and anxiety, but hopefully, it could lead to treatments that involve changing sleep cycles. While there are medications to treat mental illness, and cognitive behavioral therapy is helpful, if something like sleep disruption is found to be a factor, it could be a more effective avenue for relieving symptoms. Check out the video to learn more.