Lack of sleep can make anyone irritable. People who have difficulty falling asleep or maintaining sleep tend to experience more mood swings and higher levels of negative affect than those who do not. Although increased stress has been linked to sleep impairment, it is unclear whether sleep deficits lead to increases in stress or whether stress leads to sleep problems. To get a better picture of the direction of this relationship, Jared D. Minkel of the Department of Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania recently led a study that compared how 53 adults assigned to a sleep or no-sleep condition responded to moderately and extremely challenging cognitive tasks.
The goal was to determine if lack of sleep would increase stress responses on various levels of cognitive challenges. Minkel assigned half of the participants to a no-sleep condition, keeping them awake all night, while the other half received a full night of sleep. The following morning, the participants were given simple cognitive tasks and difficult cognitive tasks. Minkel found that those with no sleep were more easily agitated on the mildly challenging task than those who were fully rested. They experienced more anxiety, stress, and anger. However, when Minkel compared the emotional responses on the harder task, he found no differences in stress levels. In fact, he found that both groups had elevated stress responses.
The result of this study could be due to the fact the easier task was completed first and the combination and order of the tasks led to the similar stress responses on the second task. Also, even though the sleep-deprived group had higher rates of negative responses on the first task, they were not significant, except with respect to anger. Minkel believes that this finding sheds light on how sleep loss can affect everyday well-being. For instance, many people who have impaired sleep due to psychological problems, lifestyle, work schedules, or other factors may become easily overwhelmed when presented with mild stressors. “Stress often co-occurs with inadequate sleep duration, and both are believed to impact mood and emotion,” Minkel said. However, more work needs to be done to better understand how chronic sleep impairment, which is not uncommon, impacts overall quality of life in the general population.
Minkel, Jared D., Siobhan Banks, Oo Htaik, Marisa C. Moreta, Christopher W. Jones, Eleanor L. McGlinchey, Norah S. Simpson, and David F. Dinges. Sleep deprivation and stressors: Evidence for elevated negative affect in response to mild stressors when sleep deprived. Emotion 12.5 (2012): 1015-020. Print.
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