NCPS | World Sleep Day: How sleep affects your emotions

We all know that tiredness feels bad. We are irritable, slow, easily upset, and find it hard to make it through the day when we are tired. Yet many of us continue to shave away our sleeping time as we devote more and more hours to our complex schedules. Even though we know that we’re going to be exhausted and cranky in the morning, we figure that it’s a price worth paying to get our work squared away on time. But is it really?

As World Sleep Day approaches, we think it’s about time that we addressed the very serious emotional problems which chronic lack of sleep can bring. There’s a reason why sleep deprivation is considered a form of torture. It’s not just horrible, it also has long-term effects on our cognitive, physical, behavioural, and emotional states. Sleep deprivation is so damaging that entire books could (and have) be written on its effects, and still barely scratch the surface. So, for this short article, we’ll concentrate on the basics of how sleep affects your emotions:


Everyone who’s ever been tired has snapped at a friend, family member, or co-worker while lacking sleep. It’s not pleasant for anyone involved, and it often leaves us feeling guilty for not being able to manage our emotions more effectively.

Being tired is a bit like being drunk. When you’re drunk, your brain loses the ability to apply checks and balances to your behaviour. So, you end up saying and doing exactly what you feel like in the moment, regardless of how appropriate that is. When you’re tired, your brain lacks the energy to check your emotions and inhibit your reactions, so you end up lashing out at your annoying co-workers, or crying at puppy videos, or wallowing in misery which seems disproportional to your circumstances. Similarly, just as we feel embarrassed and ashamed when we behave badly while drunk, many people with chronic exhaustion feel bad about their emotional reactivity. This kind of guilt and self-reproaching adds to the misery of sleep-deprivation.


At other times, you may find that you are unable to summon up the kind of emotion required to fully participate in something. You may be too exhausted to smile and laugh and dance at a birthday party, for example, or you may struggle to generate any enthusiasm for a new project at work. Needless to say, this can have a big impact on your quality of life and may even end up damaging your career or relationships.


There are plenty of theories as to why we’re more emotionally reactive while we’re sleepy, but the most popular ones take note of the fact that we’re more likely to over-react to negative rather than to positive stimuli. So, for example, after a night of poor sleep you might rage and yell at someone who cut you up in traffic, but then an hour later find yourself too tired to work up a smile for your cheery co-worker. Because sleep deprivation and tiredness make it harder for us to think clearly and defend ourselves properly, some people theorise that we become intensely reactive to stress or things which could anger us as an instinctive reaction to protect ourselves from danger while we’re in a weakened (i.e. tired) state.

Research has shown that sleep deprivation makes an area of the brain called the amygdala go into overdrive. One of the jobs of the amygdala is to control our immediate emotional reactions. When we’re tired, heightened activity in the amygdala combines with a reduced ability to think clearly, making us anxious, moody, and prone to emotional outbursts.


If this kind of emotional disconnect continues, you may well find that your relationships and career start to be affected. Daily life (particularly those parts which involve interacting with others!) requires a delicate balance of emotional give-and-take. If you can’t filter, restrain, or generate emotions properly, it’s likely that you’ll eventually fall out with others. You may also find yourself making impulsive, emotion-based decisions rather than sitting down to properly think things through. All of this can lead to significant challenges in your career and relationships.

Perhaps most importantly of all, your mental and physical health can really take a battering if you don’t get enough, good quality sleep. Our bodies and minds desperately need the right amount of sleep (at the right time) in order to keep themselves hale and hearty. It’s while we’re asleep that we heal up damage, process nutrients, form memories, sort through emotions, and all kinds of other essential things which our brains just don’t have the time or space for while we’re awake. Neglecting sleep means neglecting all of those vital processes and more – and that’s very, very bad for you.


Insomnia and sleep deprivation are worryingly common problems in the modern world. But there are some simple things you can do to correct them:

  • Make time for sleep. Schedule a decent amount of time in for sleep as a vital part of your routine. If you can, try and ensure that you’re getting to sleep and waking up at roughly the same times each day. This will help you to establish a regular sleeping and waking rhythm.
  • Turn off phones and devices before bed. The blue light and the stimulation we get from smartphones, tablets, laptops, and even from the TV can disrupt the natural processes which help us to wind down before sleep. Put the phone away at least an hour before you head to bed.
  • Practice good sleep hygiene. Make your bedroom as restful and as possible. Fresh sheets, a comfortable ambient temperature, darkness, and quiet will all help you to get a good night’s sleep.
  • Sleep alone, if necessary. Sleeping next to someone is romantic, but it doesn’t always make for a restful night. Your partner’s shifting, snoring, and cover-stealing could lower the quality of your sleep. If you really need to, don’t be afraid (or ashamed) to hop into the spare bed for the night.
  • Sort out your stressors. Stress and anxiety are major barriers to good sleep. Tackling your mental health and wellbeing issues is key to achieving peaceful sleep. If you need some help getting to grips with your mental health, call an accredited counsellor in your area and get started on the road to healing.
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