Clear link found between reduced sleep and depression and anxiety

We all know the misery of getting up in the morning after a bad night’s sleep. We can wake up feeling groggy, irritable, tired and less capable of getting on with our day. But a recent study (Jacob et al., 2018) has found a direct link between reduced sleep and depressive and anxious symptoms, demonstrating that it is more than just feeling a bit tired which is spoiling your day.

Researchers at Binghampton University (Jan 2018), NY showed pictures with upsetting or emotional content to a group of participants. They then tracked the participants’ attention by analysing their eye movement and found that those with the more disrupted sleep patterns kept their focus on distressing material for longer than those who had slept well.

The researchers concluded that those with disrupted sleep might find it more difficult to shift their attention away from negative thoughts. They suggest that inadequate sleep might be a significant reason why some people ruminate or obsess over things that make them unhappy. The psychologists will be developing their research by looking in more detail at precise timings and patterns of sleep to establish links. If their theories are found to be correct then they may be able to use their research to develop new approaches to working with patients suffering from depressive or anxious symptoms.

In the meantime, it is important to recognise that it has been shown that disrupted sleep patterns are implicated in a kind of weakness of the mind that makes it more difficult to shift attention away from negative thoughts. This leads to several possible conclusions that might help the anxious or depressed person:

1. Understand why it is important to improve the quality of your sleep

This might sound obvious - everyone knows that better sleep makes us feel better, but we now have clear evidence that the quality of your sleep directly impacts on your mind’s ability to shift away from negative thoughts. If you are struggling with ruminations, obsessions or long periods of sadness, the most important message to take away is that improving the quality of your sleep should be a high priority. That doesn’t mean that a great night’s sleep will necessarily cure long-term anxiety or depression, but it will definitely make it easier for you to deal with the negative thoughts. You will feel more in control and able to move your focus away from thoughts that make you feel worried or sad. Do you know how to get a good night’s sleep? Do you make this a clear priority in your life? Do you practise good “sleep hygiene”? We will look at that in the next step.

2. Educate yourself on good “Sleep Hygiene”

Sleep hygiene is a phrase that is used to describe the practises that allow for a good night’s sleep. These are basic techniques that bring together years of research on the necessary conditions that promote a good sleep. These factors include not eating a heavy meal within 3 hours before bed, cooling the bedroom down to a comfortable temperature which is not too warm, and most importantly, disengaging from “screen time” at least two hours before bed time. This is important because the light emitted from TV screens, laptops, tablets and mobile phones has an impact on the release of melatonin, which causes the brain to think that the sun is up and it is time to be wide awake. Even if you are able to fall asleep at bedtime, the quality of your sleep is impaired because your brain thinks it is supposed to be awake.

3. Have a plan in place

If you have had a bad night’s sleep, it might be helpful for you to hold this in mind as you embark on your day. Remind yourself that you might have a hard time shifting away from negative thoughts today, and be kind and gentle with yourself as you do all you can to keep your mood positive. If you do find yourself feeling a bit low or anxious, it might be helpful to have a plan in place for how to look after yourself. What works for you? Have a think about what helps you when you are feeling low and remind yourself of what you need. Is there a particular movie which always cheers you up? An aromatherapy bath, dinner with a friend, going to a yoga class after work, whatever it might be, plan it in advance knowing that you might have a trickier day ahead and need a little self-compassion.

4. Learn how to shift your attention away from negative thoughts

Mindfulness is a technique that strengthens the part of the brain which is responsible for bringing your attention away from your thoughts and back to the present moment. Practising regular mindfulness meditation will make your mind much more resilient and better able to cope with the occasional bad night of sleep. If you can become an expert in shifting your attention away from negative thoughts, this can negate the effects of poor sleep quality and will give you the tools you need to cope.


Jacob A. Nota, Meredith E. Coles. Shorter sleep duration and longer sleep onset latency are related to difficulty disengaging attention from negative emotional images in individuals with elevated transdiagnostic repetitive negative thinking. Journal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry, 2018; 58: 114