Sleep Deprivation and the Stress Response

Sleep and anxiety are two important psychological processes that are heavily dependent on each other.  While the two have very different purposes – sleep helps calm one down while stress emerges when one feels nervous – both processes interact with each other in many different ways, and both can be very different in importance depending on whether they are viewed from a neurological or conscious perspective. Generally, the less sleep one obtains, the more prone one is to stress and anxiety. However, one’s perception about how much sleep one obtains may be different from how much sleep one actually gets. Although neurological and conscious perspectives on sleep and stress may seem very different at first, they might share more in common than one thinks.

There are three important parts of the brain that have major impacts on one’s sleep and stress. The thalamus and the amygdala affect sleep and anxiety, respectfully, and a neurotransmitter called serotonin plays a role in determining one’s impulse control and emotional states; a lack of serotonin has also been shown to result in increased anxiety (p. 47). One isn’t very likely to be stressed out when asleep, because the thalamus partially blocks sensory information. Because of the thalamus’ effects on our consciousness when we sleep, it is very difficult to create a proper conscious perspective of ourselves while we are sleeping; after all, a conscious experience is subjective depending on the person who experiences it, and if we are not able to experience it properly, our thoughts on the experience will likely be completely different than what actually happened. However, we are still aware of potential dangers when we sleep, and our brain doesn’t go to sleep when we fall asleep. The lack of consciousness we have while sleeping also pays off in the form of reduced anxiety.

In contrast, when we do not obtain enough sleep over a long period of time, the effects of sleep deprivation begin to become more apparent. Sleep deprivation has been proven to cause increased amounts of anxiety, depression, and distress, and long enough periods of sleep deprivation could potentially lower one’s cognitive performance. Studies have also found that the effects of sleep deprivation become more serious over longer periods of time, and people affected by it often overestimate its impacts over a shorter period of time. (p. 94). This is likely because lack of sleep can also result in a lack of serotonin, reducing one’s ability to make proper decisions. An interesting connection between conscious and neurological perspectives on sleep deprivation is that people who have been affected by sleep deprivation generally tend to overestimate the time that they are actually asleep and underestimate the time that they are actually awake.

Another side effect of not receiving enough sleep is the potential of acquiring a sleep disorder. One sleep disorder that connects to both sleep deprivation and anxiety is insomnia, wherein someone’s worries about not getting enough sleep prevent the person from falling asleep as a result. Two neurotransmitters play a major role in the effects of insomnia – low levels of acetylcholine, which can make it difficult to fall asleep; and low levels of serotonin, as discussed earlier. However, from a conscious perspective, it is very difficult to understand the effects that insomnia has on someone. For instance, there is a subcategory of insomnia called “pseudoinsomnia”, where the person affected by insomnia dreams about not sleeping while in an asleep state. People who have been affected by pseudoinsomnia have often claimed that they were awake over the past few hours, even though they were still sleeping (p. 95).

In conclusion, sleep deprivation and stress interact in many different and unusual ways, from both neurological and conscious perspectives. One may think that sleep and anxiety serve very different purposes from each other, but when one takes time to think about the sleep one is properly obtaining, the connection between the two functions becomes clear. A person who is under the effects of sleep deprivation can often take a very different perspective on the situation, partly as a result of one’s decreased cognitive ability and partly because of the lack of important neurotransmitters like serotonin and acetylcholine that can result from a lack of proper sleep. In this case, the decreased cognitive ability influences one’s conscious perspective on sleep deprivation, while the lack of neurotransmitters explains the effects of sleep deprivation from a neurological perspective. The lack of neurotransmitters can also influence one’s anxiety, particularly after long periods of time have passed without proper sleep. A good way to reduce the effects of sleep deprivation and stress is trying to adapt a regular sleep schedule (p. 96); this can help cancel out the concerns brought about by insomnia along with potentially reducing the anxiety one feels during sleep deprivation