When it comes to managing anxiety disorders, William Shakespeare’s Macbeth had it right when he referred to sleep as the “balm of hurt minds.” While a full night of slumber stabilizes emotions, a sleepless night can trigger up to a 30% rise in anxiety levels, according to new research from UC Berkeley.
Researchers have found that the type of sleep most apt to calm and reset the anxious brain is deep sleep, also known as non-rapid eye movement (NREM) slow-wave sleep, a state in which neural oscillations become highly synchronized, and heart rates and blood pressure drop.
“We have identified a new function of deep sleep, one that decreases anxiety overnight by reorganizing connections in the brain,” said study senior author Matthew Walker, a UC Berkeley professor of neuroscience and psychology. “Deep sleep seems to be a natural anxiolytic (anxiety inhibitor), so long as we get it each and every night.”
The findings, published today, Nov. 4, in the journal Nature Human Behaviour, provide one of the strongest neural links between sleep and anxiety to date. They also point to sleep as a natural, non-pharmaceutical remedy for anxiety disorders, which have been diagnosed in some 40 million American adults and are rising among children and teens.
“Our study strongly suggests that insufficient sleep amplifies levels of anxiety and, conversely, that deep sleep helps reduce such stress,” said study lead author Eti Ben Simon, a postdoctoral fellow in the Center for Human Sleep Science at UC Berkeley.