We all know that a lack of sleep is bad for us. It makes us grumpy, clumsy, more prone to snacking and overwhelmed by our daily tasks.

But new research, conducted by Binghamton University in New York, is now suggesting that continuous bad sleep can be linked to our brains focusing on bad, repetitive thoughts. Which could explain the link between poor sleep and mental health issues like depression and anxiety.

These repetitive thoughts – or fixations - that sleep-deprived people experience tend to be negative and because our brain is tired, we experience a never-ending loop of negative thoughts and feelings that make us anxious and worried.

Tired ladyTo put this negative loop into context, think of it as seeing a car crash on your daily commute. For most people, you see the crash and feel a wave of concern for those involved. You may feel lucky that you yourself are not involved. But, pretty quickly, your thoughts will move on to something else, like work, children, relationships or even what you’re going to have for lunch.

When you are suffering from a negative loop, your brain will find it hard to move on from this car crash. Meaning your thoughts become overwhelmed by the situation. You may find it hard to look away, feel obsessed with finding out if the people involved are okay and, most troublingly, you may start obsessing over yourself or loved ones being involved in a car crash. The longer you are trapped in this loop, the more that your anxiety will grow and bother you.

During the study itself, 52 participants (some of whom had previously suffered from either sleep issues or anxiety) were invited to come into the lab and study various pictures. These pictures were categorised into negative images (such as knives and guns), positive images (such as nature or sports) and neutral images (such as everyday household items). Using eye tracking equipment, the scientists then measured how long the participants would linger over the different images.

The results showed that the participants who had sleep issues such as falling asleep at night, or that had slept for fewer hours a night, would have linger for longer over the negative images shown and have trouble dissociating from them. Yet they did not linger over the positive or neutral images.

It was also suggested that the more our brains become trapped in these negative loops then the less likely we’d be able to distinguish between real dangers. So, when a shadow from a tree falls across our bedroom window, we are more likely to think of it an intruder than we would be if we were not exhausted.

The study highlights, again, that a quality night’s sleep of at least six hours is essential for our well-being. Of course, getting a good night’s sleep is easier said than done for many of us.

If you find yourself struggling with your sleep health, try to evaluate what is preventing you from getting to sleep at night. Talk to your GP about your sleep and try to improve your bedroom routine at night. Simple changes like avoiding technology and indulging in relaxing pre-bedtime activities like yoga or reading can really help you to get to sleep at night. Try to experiment and find a routine that works best for you. 

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at FreeDigitalPhotos.net