It is no surprise that getting enough sleep is crucial to physical and mental health but lack of a certain type of sleep can significantly increase the risk for developing or worsening symptoms depression and anxiety.
Rapid Eye Movement or REM is a phase of sleep in which dreams are made and is important for a solid, restful night of sleep that repairs the body and mind. A lack of good REM sleep has long been associated with chronic insomnia as people with this problem often have restless REM sleep or wake up too frequently to reach that phase of deep rest.
Without this stage of sleep insomniacs are more likely to deal with some issues of anxiety and depression or even develop a disorder if they do not take measures to improve their sleep.
Processing Emotions During Deep Sleep
REM sleep is important for many reasons but previous studies have pointed to this stage of rest as the most likely candidate involved in the regulation of emotions. Researchers have found that while REM is occurring, key arousal hormones such as serotonin, adrenaline and dopamine are inactive.
This may indicate that during good REM sleep, the emotional impact of memories is properly processed and resolved. When REM sleep is disturbed or someone has restless REM, then they do not have the opportunity to work through the emotions of the day and emotional distress can start to accumulate.
Over time as emotional stress that has not been processed continues to accumulate it eventually leads to a vicious cycle of overarousal in which insomnia promotes distress and that stress in turn causes arousal and more ongoing insomnia.
Studying Sleep and Stress
Sleep is known to have five distinct phases which go from light sleep to deep sleep and then to REM sleep and those phases repeat themselves several times throughout the night. During the REM phase people experience shallow breathing, rapid eye movement and a rise in heart rate and blood pressure.
This is also the phase where people experience dreams and the brain triggers centers that are critical to learning. A recent study was set up in order to explore the effects of REM sleep on emotional regulation.
Using a group of adults, half of whom had insomnia and half did not, researchers monitored their sleep and electrical brain wave activity. They also completed a questionnaire about their experiences with troubling nighttime thoughts.
The study concluded after comparing the two groups' brain activity and reports about nighttime stress that the more their REM sleep was disturbed the more they had trouble resolving emotional distress. As feelings of arousal built up for the adults in the study, the more trouble they had getting a restful night of sleep and entering the REM phase.
Although people with insomnia may already have feelings of anxiety or emotional distress, if they are not able to resolve their sleep issues they will be caught in a cycle. Depression and anxiety affect a person's ability to sleep and their lack of sleep can prevent them from processing their emotions in a way that can reduce their symptoms of stress.
The researchers in the study believe that possibly stabilizing REM sleep could help reduce emotional distress and develop a pattern of healthier sleep. More research needs to be conducted to determine if this or cognitive behavioral therapy might be the best solution. It is an important area of research as sleep and mood have a complex interrelationship especially among people suffering from a mental illness. The results of the study might help fuel further research that would explore the connection between anxiety and insomnia.