Vicious cycle: Lack of sleep causes fear and emotional reactions, which hinder sleep
02/21/2019 // Rita Winters // Views

Most of us have experienced the negative aspects of not having enough sleep at night. This includes, but is not limited to, emotional instability, difficulty in making decisions, and what was recently concluded in a Rutgers University study, a higher likelihood to be afraid.

The researchers at Rutgers University spent a week studying and monitoring 17 students using headbands that measured brain waves. The following week was dedicated to image and light association to a mild electric shock. The brain waves were mapped and compared to the amount of sleep each student had. Findings showed that the students who had more time in Rapid-Eye Movement (REM) sleep had a calmer response to the association of image/light-shock.

Another of their experiments included polysomnography, a more standard and accurate approach to sleep analysis. Using this research method, the results showed an intensive fear response in those who did not get enough REM sleep.

Some of the parts of the brain affected by lack of sleep were:

  • Amygdala, the center for emotions, behavior, and motivation;
  • Prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for planning, complex behaviors, and personality development; and the
  • Hippocampus, which enables navigation, memory, and consolidation of information.

The negative effects of sleep deprivation

Sleep deprivation, as most people understand it, is basically a lack of sleep, but it is also defined as sleeping at the wrong time of day, or not being able to sleep well. Sleeping well involves going through the (REM) and non-REM cycles each night. To explain further, REM sleep is when you dream, and non-REM is usually known as “deep sleep.” In order for an individual to function well, one must be able to get enough of each type of sleep at the proper time in a 24-hour cycle, also called the "circadian cycle." (Related: Get better quality sleep with daily yoga and meditation.)


Constant sleep deprivation results in a significant decrease of activity in the regions of the brain responsible for emotions, such as fear, and learning. The evidence found in brain scans and sleep-monitoring exercises shows how the lack of sleep increases the risk of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Sleep deprivation does not only affect mental issues like anxiety and depression, but affects physical matters as well. A constant lack of sleep can cause physical health problems like heart disease, ocular difficulties, diabetes, obesity, and a higher likelihood for the flu and other communicable and non-communicable diseases. These diseases and illnesses, however treatable, can also cause further sleep deprivation, going around in a vicious cycle that generally results in a constant state of morbidity, and subsequently, early mortality.

Importance of sleep

Students, especially those currently in college, are often subject to poor sleeping habits due to deadlines and heavy work loads. Crucial as collegiate requirements may seem, sleep is often ignored or put aside in order to achieve certain academic goals.

No matter how productive one may seem by skipping sleep, a well-rested person will always prove more efficient. If you have difficulty getting a good night's rest, there are several ways you can help yourself:

  1. Sync your body to the natural sleep-wake cycle.
  2. Control your exposure to light, including computers and cellphones.
  3. Exercise regularly.
  4. Keep a healthy, natural diet.
  5. Clear your head prior to jumping in.

A proper night's rest promotes better memory and enhanced decision-making, and relieves a person of anxieties and fears that can cause mental deterioration over time. Further sleep studies may prove useful to stress the importance of sleep as a regenerative state in order for us to achieve wellness.

Keep yourself updated with sleep-related news and other health stories at

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