Sleep Your Anxiety Away, Part I: You’ve Tried the Rest, Now Get Some Rest

Maybe you’ve been struggling with anxiety and panic and you’ve tried everything: medication, progressive relaxation, meditation, exercise, deep breathing, herbs, watching TV till your eyes glaze over in a stuporous fog—and still you’re feeling nervous, irritable, unable to focus, panicky, and tense.

What you’re missing might surprise you: you could be suffering from lack of sleep.

Studies show sleep deprivation to be one of the primary contributors to anxiety problems, depression, and other psychiatric disorders. Sleep appears to be very important for emotional regulation and processing.

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At University of California Berkeley’s Sleep and Neuroimaging Laboratory, assistant professor Matthew Walker’s experiment with sleep deprivation in humans showed that without sleep, the brain reverts back to more primitive patterns of activity. People then become less able to put emotional events into context and respond appropriately.

The amygdala is the part of the brain that prepares the body to protect itself when it perceives danger. When it senses danger, it sends a message to the prefrontal cortex, which then interprets and assesses the situation and decides whether to activate the fight or flight response. Under normal circumstances, the amygdala and prefrontal cortex work together to respond appropriately to danger while also keeping people from overreacting to emotional experiences. Under conditions of sleep deprivation, subjects’ amygdales and prefrontal cortexes stopped working together. Emotional centers were 60% more active, resulting in slower reflexes, increased irritation, problems with focus and concentration, and higher feelings of anxiety.

Other studies suggest that lack of REM sleep causes or worsens psychological problems. REM sleep, also known as dreaming sleep, is very important for processing emotions and memories, clearing the mind of the stressful events of the day, and dreaming. During this stage of sleep, the areas of the brain used in learning and developing new skills are stimulated. About 70 to 90 minutes after falling asleep, the first REM cycle occurs; ideally, people will have three to five REM episodes per night. Getting more and better REM sleep has been shown to boost people’s moods during the day. Fortunately, improving the quantity and quality of REM sleep you get is relatively easy.

Many experts recommend getting seven to nine hours of sleep per night, although some say that the quality of sleep is more important than quantity. Getting six hours of high-quality, uninterrupted sleep is more beneficial than eight hours of restless, interrupted sleep. You can immediately improve the quality of your sleep by making two important changes: change what you put into your body and what you do with your body, both during the day and when getting ready for sleep.

Change What You Put into Your Body

Change What You Do with Your Body

Getting adequate, quality sleep is extremely important for emotional regulation and processing. Fortunately, it is relatively easy to make changes in this area. Start today, and the effects can be felt almost immediately.


  1. Yoo, S., Gujar, N., Hu, P., Jolesz, F.A., Walker, M.P. (2007) The human emotional brain without sleep: A prefrontal amygdala disconnect. Current Biology 17: 877-878

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