You’re Not You When You’re Tired. How a Lack of Sleep Can Lead to Anxiety & Arguments

You're Not You When You're Tired: How a Lack of Sleep Can Lead to Anxiety & Arguments

Sleep is one of those things that has an absence as powerful as its presence. A lack of sleep comes with its own face – eyelids that hang, eyes that are redder and more swollen, darker circles, paler skin, wrinkles or fine lines, and a wilting mouth. It is a face that is often identified by others as being sad, communicating, perhaps, that they should go gently. There are also major changes that we can’t see. The brain is shaped by every experience, and a scarcity of pillow time is a heavyweight when it comes to having an influence.

Being able to tell what is important is vital to effectively reading people and situations, but a lack of sleep causes us to lose our neutrality. New research has found that one night of limited sleep is enough to wreak havoc with the brain’s ability to tell what is important, leading it to see everything as significant. It also is enough to weaken our ability to regulate our emotions, and it causes problems for cognitive processing. We will always struggle to learn, remember, attend, judge, solve problems or make decision when we’re wrestling with a lack of sleep.

The research. What they did.

For the study, researchers kept 18 adults awake all night. Following their sleepless night, researchers mapped the brains of the participants who were asked to identify the direction of travel of small yellow dots that moved over distracting images. The images were chosen because of their different emotional impacts – ‘positively emotional’ (a cat), ‘negatively emotional’ (a mutilated body), or ‘neutral’ (a spoon).

After a good night’s sleep, the participants were quicker and more accurate in identifying the direction of the dots hovering over the neutral images. Brain scans revealed the brain responded differently, depending on whether the images were neutral or emotional.

In contrast, when the participants were sleep deprived, they performed badly for both the neutral and the emotional images. According to brain scans, there was very little difference to the way their brains responded to the emotional and the neutral images.

It could be that sleep deprivation universally impairs judgement, but it is more likely that a lack of sleep causes neutral images to provoke an emotional response.Ben-Simon, Researcher, Tel Aviv University.

 In the second part of the study, researchers tested concentration, and the degree to which emotional things or neutral things caused distraction. After only one night of a lack of sleep, participants were distracted by every image – neutral and emotional. On the other hand, the participants who had plenty of sleep were only distracted by the emotional images.

 Interestingly, brain scans revealed that the part of the brain involved was the amygdala. The amygdala is key to the detection of threat and the activation of the fight or flight response. It’s a big player in anxiety and in any situation that involves confrontation (fight) or avoidance (flight).

What it means.

Without sleep, we’ll struggle to tell the difference between the things that could hurt us and the things that won’t. Our brains give as much weight to something neutral as it does to something more emotional. Understandably, this can lead to a bucketload of trouble.

We may experience similar emotional provocations from all incoming events, even neutral ones, and lose our ability to sort out more or less important information. This can lead to biased cognitive processing and poor judgement as well as anxiety.’ -Professor Talma Hendler, Tel Aviv Universisty’s Sagol School of Neuroscience.

Our brains are constantly scanning the environment for threats. We’re all wired to do this and it’s important to keeping ourselves safe. It does this beautifully, but sometimes it can do it too much. Not only does a lack of sleep tend us towards being cranky or irritable, it also puts our brain on high alert.

Being able to read the environment and respond appropriately is critical to having healthy relationships and to living well. The problem with having a brain that’s so quick to interpret things as potential trouble, is the heightened tendency to respond to harmless things as though they could be a problem.

 It’s no surprise then, that when we’re tired, we can be fragile or quick to temper when something is said or done, much to the confusion of the innocent ones in the line of fire. It also makes it clear why it’s so important to catch plenty of peaceful zzz’s the night before something difficult – an exam, an interview, a date. Our brains love sleep, they adore it, and given that we’re completely reliant on our brains to walk us through life as seamlessly as we can, one of the best things we can do for ourselves is to make sure we get plenty of uninterrupted, blissful pillow time. 

6 Comments

viv

Great article – but as with every article that recommends 7 – 8 hours’ sleep, I find myself wondering ‘what about mums of young children’? My child is now 3 and sleep pattern remains mixed, but we are guaranteed at least one waking per night (which incidentally I can cope with, it’s 2+ wakings that wreak havoc!).
I’m not a believer in controlled crying methods, so we try to go with the flow, encouraging good sleep but managing wakings with as much compassion as we can muster. Does this condemn me to being a terrible person until we are through this phase? I can’t be the only mum who has experienced prolonged sleep disturbance!

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Hey Sigmund

You are definitely not alone there! It’s something that all parents of young children go through, including myself (for about 10 years!) 7-8 hours is an ideal but for a lot of people, including shift workers and people with young children etc, it’s just not possible. If you aren’t able to get 7-8 hours, don’t worry – it won’t make you an awful person! If you aren’t sleeping well, try to do as much as you can to add in the other lifestyle factors. Remember that these are all ideals, and anything you can do will make a difference.

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InDaylight

Great article. Very interesting study! I notice this on myself a lot. When I’m tired I get very irritable and emotional over small things. It makes sense that sleep plays a big role in our anxiety.

Reply
Hey Sigmund

It’s a great study isn’t it. It makes a difference to understand why we do what we do, and this is a study that just makes pieces click into place – it makes a lot of sense!

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Bryan

I hadn’t thought of the inability to screen out emotional responses to neutral occurrences before. “Last straw” & “flying off the handle” “post partum Blues”, so many times and expressions make more sense when seen in that context.
Now, if for various health, economic, or reasons beyond one’s control, that good night’s sleep is not going to occur, what are some useful tools in handling this response?

Reply
Hey Sigmund

It makes a lot of sense doesn’t it. I know what you mean – sometimes sleep is easier said than done. If a good night’s sleep is something that isn’t going to come easily, try mindfulness. Even 10-20 minutes a day will make a difference. It been proven to have some amazing capacities to strengthen the brain, including helping to protect the brain against anxiety, stress, depression – and so much more. It really is incredible. Here is some information here https://www.heysigmund.com/category/being-human/mindfulness/ . There are plenty of ways to practice mindfulness but there is a free app from Smiling Minds which is a great way to get started. It has mindful meditations on it for kids to adults http://smilingmind.com.au. Hope this helps towards a happy brain.

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Anxiety is a sign that the brain has registered threat and is mobilising the body to get to safety. One of the ways it does this is by organising the body for movement - to fight the danger or flee the danger. 

If there is no need or no opportunity for movement, that fight or flight fuel will still be looking for expression. This can come out as wriggly, fidgety, hyperactive behaviour. This is why any of us might pace or struggle to sit still when we’re anxious. 

If kids or teens are bouncing around, wriggling in their chairs, or having trouble sitting still, it could be anxiety. Remember with anxiety, it’s not about what is actually safe but about what the brain perceives. New or challenging work, doing something unfamiliar, too much going on, a tired or hungry body, anything that comes with any chance of judgement, failure, humiliation can all throw the brain into fight or flight.

When this happens, the body might feel busy, activated, restless. This in itself can drive even more anxiety in kids or teens. Any of us can struggle when we don’t feel comfortable in our own bodies. 

Anxiety is energy with nowhere to go. To move through anxiety, give the energy somewhere to go - a fast walk, a run, a whole-body shake, hula hooping, kicking a ball - any movement that spends the energy will help bring the brain and body back to calm.♥️
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#parenting #anxietyinkids #childanxiety #parenting #parent
This is not bad behaviour. It’s big behaviour a from a brain that has registered threat and is working hard to feel safe again. 

‘Threat’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, but about what the brain perceives. The brain can perceive threat when there is any chance missing out on or messing up something important, anything that feels unfamiliar, hard, or challenging, feeling misunderstood, thinking you might be angry or disappointed with them, being separated from you, being hungry or tired, anything that pushes against their sensory needs - so many things. 

During anxiety, the amygdala in the brain is switched to high volume, so other big feelings will be too. This might look like tears, sadness, or anger. 

Big feelings have a good reason for being there. The amygdala has the very important job of keeping us safe, and it does this beautifully, but not always with grace. One of the ways the amygdala keeps us safe is by calling on big feelings to recruit social support. When big feelings happen, people notice. They might not always notice the way we want to be noticed, but we are noticed. This increases our chances of safety. 

Of course, kids and teens still need our guidance and leadership and the conversations that grow them, but not during the emotional storm. They just won’t hear you anyway because their brain is too busy trying to get back to safety. In that moment, they don’t want to be fixed or ‘grown’. They want to feel seen, safe and heard. 

During the storm, preserve your connection with them as much as you can. You might not always be able to do this, and that’s okay. None of this is about perfection. If you have a rupture, repair it as soon as you can. Then, when their brains and bodies come back to calm, this is the time for the conversations that will grow them. 

Rather than, ‘What consequences do they need to do better?’, shift to, ‘What support do they need to do better?’ The greatest support will come from you in a way they can receive: ‘What happened?’ ‘What can you do differently next time?’ ‘You’re the most wonderful kid and I know you didn’t want this to happen. How can you put things right? Do you need my help with that?’♥️
Big behaviour is a sign of a nervous system in distress. Before anything, that vulnerable nervous system needs to be brought back home to felt safety. 

This will happen most powerfully with relationship and connection. Breathe and be with. Let them know you get it. This can happen with words or nonverbals. It’s about feeling what they feel, but staying regulated.

If they want space, give them space but stay in emotional proximity, ‘Ok I’m just going to stay over here. I’m right here if you need.’

If they’re using spicy words to make sure there is no confusion about how they feel about you right now, flag the behaviour, then make your intent clear, ‘I know how upset you are and I want to understand more about what’s happening for you. I’m not going to do this while you’re speaking to me like this. You can still be mad, but you need to be respectful. I’m here for you.’

Think of how you would respond if a friend was telling you about something that upset her. You wouldn’t tell her to calm down, or try to fix her (she’s not broken), or talk to her about her behaviour. You would just be there. You would ‘drop an anchor’ and steady those rough seas around her until she feels okay enough again. Along the way you would be doing things that let her know your intent to support her. You’d do this with you facial expressions, your voice, your body, your posture. You’d feel her feels, and she’d feel you ‘getting her’. It’s about letting her know that you understand what she’s feeling, even if you don’t understand why (or agree with why). 

It’s the same for our children. As their important big people, they also need leadership. The time for this is after the storm has passed, when their brains and bodies feel safe and calm. Because of your relationship, connection and their felt sense of safety, you will have access to their ‘thinking brain’. This is the time for those meaningful conversations: 
- ‘What happened?’
- ‘What did I do that helped/ didn’t help?’
- ‘What can you do differently next time?’
- ‘You’re a great kid and I know you didn’t want this to happen, but here we are. What can you do to put things right? Do you need my help with that?’♥️
As children grow, and especially by adolescence, we have the illusion of control but whether or not we have any real influence will be up to them. The temptation to control our children will always come from a place of love. Fear will likely have a heavy hand in there too. When they fall, we’ll feel it. Sometimes it will feel like an ache in our core. Sometimes it will feel like failure or guilt, or anger. We might wish we could have stopped them, pushed a little harder, warned a little bigger, stood a little closer. We’re parents and we’re human and it’s what this parenting thing does. It makes fear and anxiety billow around us like lost smoke, too easily.

Remember, they want you to be proud of them, and they want to do the right thing. When they feel your curiosity over judgement, and the safety of you over shame, it will be easier for them to open up to you. Nobody will guide them better than you because nobody will care more about where they land. They know this, but the magic happens when they also know that you are safe and that you will hold them, their needs, their opinions and feelings with strong, gentle, loving hands, no matter what.♥️
Anger is the ‘fight’ part of the fight or flight response. It has important work to do. Anger never exists on its own. It exists to hold other more vulnerable emotions in a way that feels safer. It’s sometimes feels easier, safer, more acceptable, stronger to feel the ‘big’ that comes with anger, than the vulnerability that comes with anxiety, sadness, loneliness. This isn’t deliberate. It’s just another way our bodies and brains try to keep us safe. 

The problem isn’t the anger. The problem is the behaviour that can come with the anger. Let there be no limits on thoughts and feelings, only behaviour. When children are angry, as long as they are safe and others are safe, we don’t need to fix their anger. They aren’t broken. Instead, drop the anchor: as much as you can - and this won’t always be easy - be a calm, steadying, loving presence to help bring their nervous systems back home to calm. 

Then, when they are truly calm, and with love and leadership, have the conversations that will grow them - 
- What happened? 
- What can you do differently next time?
- You’re a really great kid. I know you didn’t want this to happen but here we are. How can you make things right. Would you like some ideas? Do you need some help with that?
- What did I do that helped? What did I do that didn’t help? Is there something that might feel more helpful next time?

When their behaviour falls short of ‘adorable’, rather than asking ‘What consequences they need to do better?’ let the question be, ‘What support do they need to do better.’ Often, the biggest support will be a conversation with you, and that will be enough.♥️
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#parenting #positiveparenting #mindfulparenting #anxietyinkids

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