Good Sleep and Negative Emotions
Why do we need good sleep for good mental health? We usually tend to think of sleep as a quiet and inactive time. But this is really not the case; sleep is actually an active period in which a lot of very important processing, restoration, and growth occurs. How this process happens and why our bodies need such a long period of rest every night is really still a mystery. We require sleep in order to restore and repair our minds and bodies. Sleep helps us repair damaged tissue, grow muscle, and during sleep our bodies even produce/synthesize hormones. That being said, science is still puzzled by all of he connections between sleep and mental health. Let’s explore good sleep and negative emotions starting with some interesting new research about how sleep helps us deal with emotional pain.
Haunted by the Past
Recent research has started to really help science understand why our brain needs sleep and how this process is connected to emotions and memory. The journal article entitled “Haunted by the past: old emotions remain salient in insomnia disorder” from the Netherlands Institute for Neuroscience, suggests that insomnia could primarily be caused by brains that have a difficulty with the “neutralization of emotional distress”. This important finding supports the idea that insomnia is a primary risk factor involved in the development of mood disorders like depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress. The findings were published on 25 April 2019 in the leading scientific journal Brain.
Previous research has shown that one of the main purposes of sleep is to help the brain process all of the events and emotions that we experience during our busy and active days. As part of that process, the brain tries to process and “deregulate” the strong emotional things that we might feel. For instance we have a big fight with our coworker or our spouse that makes us feel some really strong emotions like anger, sadness, fear or insecurity. Getting a good night’s sleep helps us pack away negative emotional pain effectively “putting it to bed”.
It is a well-known fact that sleep helps us to remember important experiences. But sleep is also essential for getting rid of the emotional distress that may have occurred during those experiences. Both these overnight processes involve changes in the connections between brain cells: some become stronger and consolidate memories, whereas others are weakened and get rid of unwanted associations. “Sayings like ‘sleeping on it’ to ‘get things off your mind’ reflect our nocturnal digestion of daytime experiences. Brain research now shows that only good sleepers profit from sleep when it comes to shedding emotional tension. The process does not work well in people with insomnia. In fact, their restless nights can even make them feel worse” says first author Rick Wassing.
In layman’s terms, getting good sleep allows us to pack away negative events and feelings and this allows us to deal with
them more effectively. If we don’t sleep well, distressing events from our past, maybe even from decades ago might continue to activate the emotional circuits of the brain — kind of mimicking and replaying them. This causes us to feel these strong emotional memories over and over again — and over the long term, this may affect both our sleep and our mental health.
The study’s authors Rick Wassing, Frans Schalkwijk and Eus van Someren sum it up nicely: “people with insomnia are haunted by memories of past distress”.
Getting Healthy Sleep
Healthy sleep is critical for everyone, since every single day we need to build and maintain our memory and learn new skills to live our life in better ways. This is probably why children need more sleep than adults. All day, every day, children learn language, social, and motor skills and that’s really a lot of information to process. During these crucial periods of growth and learning, younger people need a large dose of nightly slumber for optimal development and health. One-year-olds need about 11 to 14 hours nightly, school age children between 9 and 11, and teenagers between 9 and 11. Adults on the other hand usually only need need 7-9 hours of sleep per night, but even then that 7-9 hours is crucial to our physical health and mental wellness.
How do we know if sleep is affecting our mental health or vice versa?
One, if we’re having problems falling asleep and we toss and turn with our heads full of negative thoughts and/or fears — this is often a sign something is amiss.
Two, if we have lots of fitful sleep with nightmares and or weird dreams about stressful things. Everyone has occasional bad dreams, but if they happen more frequently or increase in intensity, these are both signs something is wrong and we might need to get help and especially if the bad dreams are really making us sad, anxious or fearful.
Three, early morning waking, meaning waking up two or three hours before your alarm on a regular basis and having difficulty falling back to sleep may be a sign of high stress, anxiety, depression or PTSD or other mental health issues.
Insomnia and depression or anxiety that affect your sleep are all very treatable conditions. Addressing these problems can help you improve the quality of your life and your sleep. Talk with your family doctor and or see a psychologist about your sleep troubles and any mood concerns you get be having.
Thanks for reading my blog about Good Sleep and Negative Emotions: Here are some good tips for better sleep that I put together:
Netherlands Institute for Neuroscience https://nin.nl/insomniacs-unable-emotional-distress-mind/
Rick Wassing, Frans Schalkwijk, Oti Lakbila-Kamal, Jennifer R Ramautar, Diederick Stoffers, Henri J M M Mutsaerts, Lucia M Talamini, Eus J W Van Someren, Haunted by the past: old emotions remain salient in insomnia disorder, Brain, Volume 142, Issue 6, June 2019, Pages 1783–1796, https://doi.org/10.1093/brain/awz089
Why Do We Need Sleep? https://www.sleepfoundation.org/articles/why-do-we-need-sleep
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