UC Berkeley study linking sleep, anxiety poses reality check for sleep-deprived students

Alexandra Nobida/Staff

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UC Berkeley researcher Eti Ben-Simon’s research — which showed how lack of sleep affects anxiety levels — was featured at the Neuroscience 2018 conference, held in San Diego by the Society for Neuroscience.

One of the conference’s panels, “Threats of Sleep Deprivation,” centered three topics relating to sleep: sleep and anxiety, circadian rhythms and the effect of sleep on traumatic brain injury. Ben-Simon, along with two other scientists, spoke about their research during the panel.

Ben-Simon led a study on the correlation between sleep and anxiety. The study took two years — six to eight months to collect data, and another year to analyze the results. There were 18 participants analyzed in the study, who either slept or stayed awake for an entire night. Immediately, participants without sleep had anxiety levels that were 30 percent higher.

“If people have disturbed sleep … their chances of developing an anxiety disorder is tripled,” Ben-Simon said. “We want to open the frontier to the mechanisms that do this.”

The subjects who lost the most amount of sleep lost the most prefrontal cortex activity. This specific loss of prefrontal activity was associated with higher anxiety, according to Ben-Simon.

Ben-Simon noted that the study is especially relevant to campus students and young adults, who, on average, get less than the recommended eight hours of sleep.

“When I don’t have enough sleep — like five hours and below — I normally feel tired and uninspired to do anything,” said Noah Speiser, a campus sophomore.

While there is a seemingly endless feedback loop association between sleep deprivation and anxiety, Ben-Simon referenced how the study had a “positive side.” One night of recovery sleep can bring the body’s systems “back online” and anxiety levels to a normal state.

Ben-Simon also referenced sleep therapy, an effective method of treating sleep anxiety disorders in nonclinical populations, as well as patients with generalized anxiety disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Sleep therapy has two components. First, it can come through behavioral cognitive therapy, which entails improving sleep hygiene so that people get less caffeine, less light exposure before bed and more time in bed, according to Ben-Simon.

“I often sleep pretty late at around 2 to 3 a.m. because of phone usage and just general thinking or anxiety about anything that comes to mind such as school, relationships, etc,” said Anh-Tu Lu, a campus sophomore.

The second component of sleep therapy can involve artificially increasing the power of slow-wave frequencies— the sleep waves that are helpful for calm and anxiety reduction. This method, however, will take a few years to develop, according to Ben-Simon.

“The most relevant advice for young adults is to prioritize sleep for mental health and grades and function overall,” Ben-Simon said. “But specifically for mood and emotion regulation, it’s highly valuable that people get at least eight hours of sleep every night.”

Contact Alexandra Casey at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @acasey_dc.