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.

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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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Big feelings, and the big behaviour that comes from big feelings, are a sign of a distressed nervous system. Think of this like a burning building. The behaviour is the smoke. The fire is a distressed nervous system. It’s so tempting to respond directly to the behaviour (the smoke), but by doing this, we ignore the fire. Their behaviour and feelings in that moment are a call for support - for us to help that distressed brain and body find the way home. 

The most powerful language for any nervous system is another nervous system. They will catch our distress (as we will catch theirs) but they will also catch our calm. It can be tempting to move them to independence on this too quickly, but it just doesn’t work this way. Children can only learn to self-regulate with lots (and lots and lots) of experience co-regulating. 

This isn’t something that can be taught. It’s something that has to be experienced over and over. It’s like so many things - driving a car, playing the piano - we can talk all we want about ‘how’ but it’s not until we ‘do’ over and over that we get better at it. 

Self-regulation works the same way. It’s not until children have repeated experiences with an adult bringing them back to calm, that they develop the neural pathways to come back to calm on their own. 

An important part of this is making sure we are guiding that nervous system with tender, gentle hands and a steady heart. This is where our own self-regulation becomes important. Our nervous systems speak to each other every moment of every day. When our children or teens are distressed, we will start to feel that distress. It becomes a loop. We feel what they feel, they feel what we feel. Our own capacity to self-regulate is the circuit breaker. 

This can be so tough, but it can happen in microbreaks. A few strong steady breaths can calm our own nervous system, which we can then use to calm theirs. Breathe, and be with. It’s that simple, but so tough to do some days. When they come back to calm, then have those transformational chats - What happened? What can make it easier next time?

Who you are in the moment will always be more important than what you do.
How we are with them, when they are their everyday selves and when they aren’t so adorable, will build their view of three things: the world, its people, and themselves. This will then inform how they respond to the world and how they build their very important space in it. 

Will it be a loving, warm, open-hearted space with lots of doors for them to throw open to the people and experiences that are right for them? Or will it be a space with solid, too high walls that close out too many of the people and experiences that would nourish them.

They will learn from what we do with them and to them, for better or worse. We don’t teach them that the world is safe for them to reach into - we show them. We don’t teach them to be kind, respectful, and compassionate. We show them. We don’t teach them that they matter, and that other people matter, and that their voices and their opinions matter. We show them. We don’t teach them that they are little joy mongers who light up the world. We show them. 

But we have to be radically kind with ourselves too. None of this is about perfection. Parenting is hard, and days will be hard, and on too many of those days we’ll be hard too. That’s okay. We’ll say things we shouldn’t say and do things we shouldn’t do. We’re human too. Let’s not put pressure on our kiddos to be perfect by pretending that we are. As long as we repair the ruptures as soon as we can, and bathe them in love and the warmth of us as much as we can, they will be okay.

This also isn’t about not having boundaries. We need to be the guardians of their world and show them where the edges are. But in the guarding of those boundaries we can be strong and loving, strong and gentle. We can love them, and redirect their behaviour.

It’s when we own our stuff(ups) and when we let them see us fall and rise with strength, integrity, and compassion, and when we hold them gently through the mess of it all, that they learn about humility, and vulnerability, and the importance of holding bruised hearts with tender hands. It’s not about perfection, it’s about consistency, and honesty, and the way we respond to them the most.♥️

#parenting #mindfulparenting
Anxiety and courage always exist together. It can be no other way. Anxiety is a call to courage. It means you're about to do something brave, so when there is one the other will be there too. Their courage might feel so small and be whisper quiet, but it will always be there and always ready to show up when they need it to.
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But courage doesn’t always feel like courage, and it won't always show itself as a readiness. Instead, it might show as a rising - from fear, from uncertainty, from anger. None of these mean an absence of courage. They are the making of space, and the opportunity for courage to rise.
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When the noise from anxiety is loud and obtuse, we’ll have to gently add our voices to usher their courage into the light. We can do this speaking of it and to it, and by shifting the focus from their anxiety to their brave. The one we focus on is ultimately what will become powerful. It will be the one we energise. Anxiety will already have their focus, so we’ll need to make sure their courage has ours.
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But we have to speak to their fear as well, in a way that makes space for it to be held and soothed, with strength. Their fear has an important job to do - to recruit the support of someone who can help them feel safe. Only when their fear has been heard will it rest and make way for their brave.
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What does this look like? Tell them their stories of brave, but acknowledge the fear that made it tough. Stories help them process their emotional experiences in a safe way. It brings word to the feelings and helps those big feelings make sense and find containment. ‘You were really worried about that exam weren’t you. You couldn’t get to sleep the night before. It was tough going to school but you got up, you got dressed, you ... and you did it. Then you ...’
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In the moment, speak to their brave by first acknowledging their need to flee (or fight), then tell them what you know to be true - ‘This feels scary for you doesn’t it. I know you want to run. It makes so much sense that you would want to do that. I also know you can do hard things. My darling, I know it with everything in me.’
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#positiveparenting #parenting #childanxiety #anxietyinchildren #mindfulpare
Separation anxiety has an important job to do - it’s designed to keep children safe by driving them to stay close to their important adults. Gosh it can feel brutal sometimes though.

Whenever there is separation from an attachment person there will be anxiety unless there are two things: attachment with another trusted, loving adult; and a felt sense of you holding on, even when you aren't beside them. Putting these in place will help soften anxiety.

As long as children are are in the loving care of a trusted adult, there's no need to avoid separation. We'll need to remind ourselves of this so we can hold on to ourselves when our own anxiety is rising in response to theirs. 

If separation is the problem, connection has to be the solution. The connection can be with any loving adult, but it's more than an adult being present. It needs an adult who, through their strong, warm, loving presence, shows the child their abundant intention to care for that child, and their joy in doing so. This can be helped along by showing that you trust the adult to love that child big in our absence. 'I know [important adult] loves you and is going to take such good care of you.'

To help your young one feel held on to by you, even in absence, let them know you'll be thinking of them and can't wait to see them. Bolster this by giving them something of yours to hold while you're gone - a scarf, a note - anything that will be felt as 'you'.

They know you are the one who makes sure their world is safe, so they’ll be looking to you for signs of safety: 'Do you think we'll be okay if we aren't together?' First, validate: 'You really want to stay with me, don't you. I wish I could stay with you too! It's hard being away from your special people isn't it.' Then, be their brave. Let it be big enough to wrap around them so they can rest in the safety and strength of it: 'I know you can do this, love. We can do hard things can't we.'

Part of growing up brave is learning that the presence of anxiety doesn't always mean something is wrong. Sometimes it means they are on the edge of brave - and being away from you for a while counts as brave.
Even the most loving, emotionally available adult might feel frustration, anger, helplessness or distress in response to a child’s big feelings. This is how it’s meant to work. 

Their distress (fight/flight) will raise distress in us. The purpose is to move us to protect or support or them, but of course it doesn’t always work this way. When their big feelings recruit ours it can drive us more to fight (anger, blame), or to flee (avoid, ignore, separate them from us) which can steal our capacity to support them. It will happen to all of us from time to time. 

Kids and teens can’t learn to manage big feelings on their own until they’ve done it plenty of times with a calm, loving adult. This is where co-regulation comes in. It helps build the vital neural pathways between big feelings and calm. They can’t build those pathways on their own. 

It’s like driving a car. We can tell them how to drive as much as we like, but ‘talking about’ won’t mean they’re ready to hit the road by themselves. Instead we sit with them in the front seat for hours, driving ‘with’ until they can do it on their own. Feelings are the same. We feel ‘with’, over and over, until they can do it on their own. 

What can help is pausing for a moment to see the behaviour for what it is - a call for support. It’s NOT bad behaviour or bad parenting. It’s not that.

Our own feelings can give us a clue to what our children are feeling. It’s a normal, healthy, adaptive way for them to share an emotional load they weren’t meant to carry on their own. Self-regulation makes space for us to hold those feelings with them until those big feelings ease. 

Self-regulation can happen in micro moments. First, see the feelings or behaviour for what it is - a call for support. Then breathe. This will calm your nervous system, so you can calm theirs. In the same way we will catch their distress, they will also catch ours - but they can also catch our calm. Breathe, validate, and be ‘with’. And you don’t need to do more than that.

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