Home Featured Post How ’sleeping on it’ can help the prefrontal cortex regulate emotional responses, making us feel better in the morning

How ’sleeping on it’ can help the prefrontal cortex regulate emotional responses, making us feel better in the morning

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Instead of lying awake wor­ry­ing, we’re often told to “sleep on it” when mak­ing deci­sions both big and small. And there’s actu­al­ly a sci­en­tif­ic basis for this advice. Sleep can influ­ence our response to emo­tion­al sit­u­a­tions, and helps us to man­age our men­tal health.

To under­stand why sleep and emo­tions are so con­nect­ed, it’s impor­tant to first under­stand what hap­pens in the brain when we encounter some­thing emotive.

Two main brain regions inter­act to cre­ate emo­tion­al respons­es. The first is the lim­bic sys­tem, which is locat­ed deep in our brain. This acts as our emo­tion cen­tre, quick­ly eval­u­at­ing a sit­u­a­tion and help­ing us to decide how to react. His­tor­i­cal­ly, this region may have been impor­tant for humanity’s sur­vival, as it helps us react quick­ly in cer­tain sit­u­a­tions – if we encounter a dan­ger­ous preda­tor, for example.

But most of the time we need to adjust our ini­tial emo­tion­al response. This is where the sec­ond region – the pre­frontal cor­tex – comes in. Locat­ed just behind our fore­head, the pre­frontal cor­tex helps us to increase or decrease our emo­tion­al respons­es as nec­es­sary. So if we see a preda­tor (such as a bear) in the zoo, the pre­frontal cor­tex tells us we don’t need to pan­ic because it’s in an enclosure.

These regions need to be well-con­nect­ed in order to effec­tive­ly gen­er­ate and adjust our emo­tion­al respons­es. This is where sleep comes in. When we’re sleep deprived, the con­nec­tions between these areas weak­en, mak­ing the reac­tion in the lim­bic sys­tem stronger. Sleep loss not only increas­es our reac­tion to stress­ful events dur­ing the day, it also makes these reac­tions hard­er to change. This may be par­tic­u­lar­ly pro­nounced if you lose REM (rapid eye move­ment) sleep.

Stud­ies show that get­ting poor sleep makes us more like­ly to choose less effec­tive ways of man­ag­ing our emo­tions which could have a knock-on effect for our men­tal health. Imag­ine you’re expe­ri­enc­ing a dif­fi­cult work prob­lem. If you’re well rest­ed, you are more like­ly to be able to effec­tive­ly prob­lem solve, fix­ing the issue. But if you’re sleep deprived, you might avoid deal­ing with the prob­lem. Over time, this could have a neg­a­tive effect on wellbeing.

Sleep is also cru­cial for pro­cess­ing and con­sol­i­dat­ing mem­o­ries from our day. When we have emo­tion­al expe­ri­ences, sleep both helps us remem­ber these events and remove the asso­ci­at­ed feel­ings. This hap­pens in REM sleep, when activ­i­ty in most brain regions is sim­i­lar to when we’re awake. By reac­ti­vat­ing mem­o­ries dur­ing REM sleep, the asso­ci­at­ed feel­ings can be removed from the con­tent of the mem­o­ry. This is why “sleep­ing on it” real­ly can help you feel bet­ter in the morn­ing. Indeed, stud­ies have shown that, over time, improv­ing sleep can lead to less anx­i­ety, depres­sion, and stress, and increased life satisfaction.

– Joanne Bow­er is a Lec­tur­er in Psy­chol­o­gy at the Uni­ver­si­ty of East Anglia. This arti­cle was orig­i­nal­ly pub­lished on The Con­ver­sa­tion.

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