When Sleep Deprived, Don’t Let Emotions Get the Best of You

Ever break down over a simple thing because you were sleep deprived? Most people recognize that they tend to be more emotional when they haven’t had enough shut-eye. As it turns out, it’s not that you’re more emotional per se, but that you are more likely to get emotional about things that you shouldn’t. This can lead to increased anxiety and put a damper on your productivity.

A sleep deprived hairdresser

Photo credit epSos.de, Flickr

When sleep deprived, anything can cause an emotional response

Researchers at Tel Aviv University have recently pinpointed the neurological mechanisms for why just one night of sleeplessness hurts our ability to regulate emotions.

In their paper published in the Journal of Neuroscience, a group of 18 adults were evaluated on a task after a full night’s rest and then after being kept awake all night. The volunteer’s neural functions were mapped by fMRI, which looks at blood flow in the brain, and EEG, which measures electrical responses.

The test was to tell what direction small yellow dots were moving over an image, and each image was either positively emotional (a cat), negatively emotional (a mutilated boy), or neutral (a spoon). When well-rested, the participants were able to more accurately determine the correct direction of the moving dots on the neutral images, and their neurological responses differed from neutral to emotional images. After being sleep deprived, however, the participants did not perform as well, and their brain responses were similar among the emotional and neutral images.

“It turns out we lose our neutrality. The ability of the brain to tell what’s important is compromised. It’s as if suddenly everything is important,” says lead scientist of the study, Prof. Hendler.

The study’s first author Ben-Simon remarks, “It could be that sleep deprivation universally impairs judgment, but it is more likely that a lack of sleep causes neutral images to provoke an emotional response.”

More emotions, more distraction

In addition to the participant’s emotional responses, the researchers also tested the participants’ ability to concentrate. This was done through another activity that required the participant to push buttons at indicated times while there was a distracting image in the background (either neutral or emotional, as before). Well-rested participants were able to avoid distraction from the neutral images but not emotional ones; however, the fatigued participants were distracted by all images, both neutral and emotional.

This distraction was shown by monitoring brain acitivity through fMRI. The emotional distraction showed up as activity in the amygdala, a brain region responsible for emotional processing. Thus, the emotion-regulating area of the brain was active when it shouldn’t have been for the sleep-deprived test subjects.

“These results reveal that, without sleep, the mere recognition of what is an emotional and what is a neutral event is disrupted. We may… lose our ability to sort out more or less important information,” said Prof. Hendler. “This can lead to biased cognitive processing and poor judgment as well as anxiety.”

How to manage being sleep deprived

Sometimes there’s little you can do to get that sleep, and you have to work with it. This new research suggests that sleep deprivation (1) leads to emotional responses when there shouldn’t be any, and (2) thus leads to more emotional distractions. Less emotional regulation means more anxiety – which can especially hinder learning. So, first, prepare for and recognize increased anxiety.

Furthermore, the blow to cognitive processing and judgment suggests you might want to leave important decisions to a day when you are well-rested. If you need to get work done or focus on something, this study tells us that it’s especially important to avoid distractions, even if they seem neutral. Avoid email, phone, or social media as much as possible.  In general it’s good to put aside these distractions when working, but it is especially important after a sleepless night.

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