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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Behaviour is never from ‘bad’. It’s from ‘big’. Big hungry, big tired, big disconnection, big missing, big ‘too much right now’. The reason our responses might not work can often be because we’ve misread the story, or we’ve missed an important piece of it. Their story might be about now, today, yesterday, or any of the yesterdays before now. 

Our job isn’t to fix them. They aren’t broken. Our job is to understand them. Only then can we steer our response in the right direction. Otherwise we’re throwing darts at the wrong target - behaviour, instead of the need behind the behaviour. 

Watch, listen, breathe and be with. Feel what they feel. This will help them feel you with them. We all feel safer and calmer when we feel our people beside us - not judging or hurrying or questioning. What don’t you know, that they need you to know?♥️
We all have first up needs. The difference between adults and children is that we can delay the meeting of these needs for a bit longer than children - but we still need them met. 

The first most important question the brain needs answered is, ‘Is my body safe?’ - Am I free from threat, hunger, exhaustion, pain? This is usually an easier one to take care of or to recognise when it might need some attention. 

The next most important question is, ‘Is my heart safe?’ - Am I loved, noticed, valued, claimed, wanted, welcome? This can be an easy one to overlook, especially in the chaos of the morning. Of course we love them and want them - and sometimes we’ll get distracted, annoyed, frustrated, irritated. None of this changes how much we love and want them - not even for a second. We can feel two things at once - madly in love with them and annoyed/ distracted/ frustrated. Sometimes though, this can leave their ‘Is my heart safe?’ needs a little hungry. They have less capacity than us to delay the meeting of these needs. When these needs are hungry, we’ll be more likely to see big feelings or big behaviour. 

The more you can fill their love tanks at the start of the day, the more they’ll be able to handle the bumps. This doesn’t have to be big. It just has to be enough. It might look like having a cuddle, reading a story, having a chat, sitting with them while they have breakfast or while they pat the dog, touching their back when they walk past, telling them you love them.

All brains need to feel loved and wanted, and as though they aren’t a nuisance, but sometimes they’ll need to feel it more. The more their felt sense of relational safety is met, the more they’ll be able to then focus on ‘thinking brain’ things, such as planning, making good decisions, co-operating, behaving. 

(And if this today was a bumpy one, that’s okay. Those days are going to happen. If most of the time their love tanks are full, they’ll handle when it drops a little. Just top it up when you can. And don’t forget to top yours up too. Be kind to yourself. You deserve it as much as they do.)♥️
Things will always go wrong - a bad decision, a good decision with a bad outcome, a dilemma, wanting something that comes with risk. 

Often, the ‘right thing’ lives somewhere in the very blurry bounds of the grey. Sometimes it will be about what’s right for them. Sometimes what’s right for others. Sometimes it will be about taking a risk, and sometimes the ‘right’ thing just feels wrong right now, or wrong for them. Even as adults, we will often get things wrong. This isn’t because we’re bad, or because we don’t know the right thing from the wrong thing, but because few things are black and white. 

The problem with punishment and harsh consequences is that we remove ourselves as an option for them to turn to next time things end messy, or as a guide before the mess happens. 

Feeling safe in our important relationships is a primary need for all of us humans. That means making sure our relationships are free from judgement, humiliation, shame, separation. If our response to their ‘wrong things’ is to bring all of these things to the table we share with them with them, of course they’ll do anything to avoid it. This isn’t about lying or secrecy. It’s about maintaining relational ‘safety’, or closeness.

Kids want to do the right thing. They want us to love and accept them. But they’re going to get things wrong sometimes. When they do, our response will teach them either that we are safe for them to come to no matter what, or that we aren’t. 

So what do we do when things go wrong? Embrace them, reject the behaviour:

‘I love that you’ve been honest with me. That means everything to me. I know you didn’t expect things to end up like this, but here we are. Let’s talk about what’s happened and what can be different next time.’

Or, ‘Something must have made this (wrong thing) feel like the right thing to do, otherwise you wouldn’t have done it. We all do that sometimes. What do you think it was that was for you?’

Or, ‘I know you know lying isn’t okay. What made you feel like you couldn’t tell me the truth? How can we build the trust again. Let’s talk about how to do that.’

You will always be their greatest guide, but you can only be that if they let you.♥️
Whenever there is a call to courage, there will be anxiety - every time. That’s what makes it brave. This is why challenging things, brave things, important things will often drive anxiety. 

At these times - when they are safe, but doing something hard - the feelings that come with anxiety will be enough to drive avoidance. When it is avoidance of a threat, that’s important. That’s anxiety doing it’s job. But when the avoidance is in response to things that are important, brave, meaningful, that avoidance only serves to confirm the deficiency story. This is when we want to support them to take tiny steps towards that brave thing. It doesn’t have to happen all at once.l and it doesn’t matter how long it takes. Brave is about being able to handle the discomfort of anxiety enough to do the important, challenging thing. It’s built in tiny steps, one after the other. 

We don’t have to get rid of their anxiety and neither do they. They can feel anxious, and do brave. At these times (safe, but scary) they need us to take a posture of validation and confidence. ‘I believe you, and I believe in you.’ ‘I know this feels big, and I know you can handle it.’ 

What we’re saying is we know they can handle the discomfort of anxiety. They don’t have to handle it well, and they don’t have to handle it for too long. Handling it is handling it, and that’s the substance of ‘brave’. 

Being brave isn’t about doing the brave thing, but about being able to handle the discomfort of the anxiety that comes with that. And if they’ve done that today, at all, or for a moment longer than yesterday, then they’ve been brave today. It doesn’t matter how messy it was or how small it was. Let them see their brave through your eyes.‘That was big for you wasn’t it. And you did it. You felt anxious, and you stayed with it. That’s what being brave is all about.’♥️
A relationally unsafe (emotionally unsafe) environment can cause as much breakage as as a physically unsafe one. 

The brain’s priority will always be safety, so if a person or environment doesn’t feel emotionally safe, we might see big behaviour, avoidance, or reduced learning. In this case, it isn’t the child that’s broken. It’s the environment.

But here’s the thing, just because a child doesn’t feel safe, doesn’t mean the person or environment isn’t safe. What it means is that there aren’t enough signals of safety - yet, and there’s a little more work to do to build this. ‘Safety’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, it’s about what the brain perceives. Children might have the safest, warmest, most loving adult in front of them, but that doesn’t mean they’ll feel safe. This is when we have to look at how we might extend bigger cues of warmth, welcome, inclusiveness, and what we can do (or what roles or responsibilities can we give them) to help them feel valued and needed. This might take time, and that’s okay. Children aren’t meant to feel safe with every adult in front of them, so sometimes what they need most is our patience and understanding as we continue to build this. 

This is the way it works for all of us, everywhere. None of us will be able to give our best or do our best if we don’t feel welcome, liked, valued, and free from hostility, humiliation or judgement. 

This is especially important for our schools. A brain that doesn’t feel safe can’t learn. For schools to be places of learning, they first have to be places of relationship. Before we focus too sharply on learning support and behaviour management, we first have to focus on felt sense of safety support. The most powerful way to do this is through relationship. Teachers who do this are magic-makers. They show a phenomenal capacity to expand a child’s capacity to learn, calm big behaviour, and open up a child’s world. But relationships take time, and felt safety takes time. The time it takes for this to happen is all part of the process. It’s not a waste of time, it’s the most important use of it.♥️

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