UC Berkeley researchers find ‘very strong’ link between sleep trouble, anxiety

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UC Berkeley researchers have found that lack of sleep predicts increases in anxiety levels up to 30%, while sufficient levels of sleep reduce stress.

The findings – published in Nature Human Behaviour – explain why sleep loss triggers anxiety and how a good night of sleep can keep people calm. While previous findings have discovered the relationship between sleep and anxiety, the campus researchers discovered that people who have difficulty staying and falling asleep are more than twice as likely to develop anxiety disorders, and 80% of people with preexisting anxiety disorders experience difficulties in falling asleep.

According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, anxiety is the most common mental illness in the U.S., affecting approximately 40 million American adults, or about 18% of the U.S. population aged 18 and older every year.

“People should prioritize the duration and regularity of their sleep,” said Eti Ben-Simon, lead author of the study and campus researcher. “Typically people in the medical profession think of sleep as a symptom of anxiety, rather than a contributing factor to it. We should rethink this statement and bring sleep and its treatment closer to students and adults that have to deal with this in their everyday lives.”

When people stay up all night, the amygdala becomes overactive and prefrontal regions in the brain shut down, according to Ben-Simon. As a result, people become more emotional and less able to regulate their emotions, which causes greater stress and anxiety.

Ben-Simon said the study findings stressed the importance of deep sleep, which occurs toward the beginning of the night, in reducing stress. She added that one night of deep sleep reduces the anxiety participants felt the following day.

The study’s findings are significant for students. Earlier this year, campus researchers found that the number of college students aged 18 to 26 who reported suffering from anxiety has doubled since 2008. This data, however, does not relate this statistic with students’ sleep quality, which can have grave consequences on happiness and mental health, according to Ben-Simon.

Similar findings were used to support the recent Californian law that enacted later start times for middle and high schools. The law specified that middle schools should start school no earlier than 8 a.m. and high schools should start no sooner than 8:30 a.m.

The Berkeley Unified School District, or BUSD, is not significantly impacted by the legislation because its schools already start at 8:27 a.m., BUSD spokesperson Trish McDermott previously told The Daily Californian.

“Sleep is the single most effective thing to reset our body and mind,” Simon said. “If you do your best to protect your sleep, it will protect you in return.”

Contact Angelina Wang at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @dc_angelina.