Your mental state on any given day is likely a reflection of your quality of sleep the night before. That’s according to a new study from Binghamton University, which found that people who regularly sleep less than eight hours per night are more likely to experience intrusive, repetitive thoughts like those seen in anxiety and/or depression. More specifically, the researchers determined that people who experience regular sleep disruptions had a harder time shifting their attention away from negative thoughts or information.
“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,” said Binghamton University professor of psychology Meredith Coles of the results. “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.”
Together with her former graduate student Jacob Nota, Coles assessed the timing and duration of sleep in individuals with moderate to high levels of repetitive, negative thoughts, also known as rumination. The study participants were then exposed to a variety of photos designed to incite an emotional response, and the researchers measured their attention and reaction through their eye movements. In the end, those with poor sleep schedules had a harder time shifting their focus away from the negative images. “This may mean that inadequate sleep is part of what makes negative intrusive thoughts stick around and interfere with people’s lives,” remarked Coles.
“The challenge with anxiety and sleep problems is that they make each other worse,” said Rita Aouad, MD, a psychiatrist and sleep medicine doctor at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, to Prevention. “If you’re feeling anxious, you tend to have trouble falling asleep or staying asleep because your brain is churning over negative thoughts. Then, if your sleep is interrupted often, it can cause the kind of ‘stuck’ quality seen in recent study.”
While improving your sleep schedule is easier said than done, Aouad recommends avoiding smartphone, laptop, or tablet screens for at least an hour before bed, and sticking to a consistent sleep routine (even on the weekends). “This can get your brain and body into the habit of consistent sleep,” she adds. If the anxiety and rumination persist, she recommends consulting your doctor to find a solution that works for you.