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Can Sleep Deprivation Cause Anxiety?

by Dale Cudmore | Updated: Jan 13, 2022

One of the most significant consequences of sleep deprivation is that it can cause anxiety.

That anxiety can go on to cause more health issues, and even lead to long-term sleep problems.

This short post summarizes current research that shows the link between sleep deprivation and anxiety, and how serious of a risk it is.

Research on Sleep Deprivation and Anxiety

A meta-study from a few years ago looked at past experiments that studied the effects of sleep restriction and deprivation on anxiety (1).

Overall, they found that:

Our analyses indicate that sleep deprivation, whether total or not, leads to a significant increase in state anxiety levels, but sleep restriction does not.

So while sleep deprivation does put you at greater risk of anxiety, losing a bit of sleep once in a while doesn’t have a significant effect for most people. More on this in just a bit...

I’d like to highlight one more specific study that had subjects self-report their anxiety after a controlled experiment of acute sleep deprivation (2).

Subjects in the experimental sleep deprivation group were asked to stay awake for 24 hours and had higher levels of general distress and depression (which is highly correlated to anxiety).

So while minor sleep disturbances don’t necessarily increase anxiety levels, even pulling a single all-nighter can.

Effect of Sleep Deprivation vs Sleep Restriction on Anxiety

I’d like to clarify what was defined as deprivation and restriction in the meta-study mentioned above:

  • Sleep deprivation - Complete absence of sleep or deprivation of a particular sleep stage.
  • Sleep restriction - Reduction in total sleep time

If you sleep for 6 hours for one night instead of your usual 8 hours, that would be considered sleep restriction.

However, if that happened on a regular basis, you would start to spend less time in certain sleep stages, and it would develop into deprivation.

SummaryResearch is fairly clear that sleep deprivation can cause anxiety. This can occur in as little as one day if someone gets no sleep at all.

Does Anxiety Affect Sleep Quality?

The most concerning thing about these findings is that it’s clear that people with anxiety tend to have poor sleep (3).

Research shows that anxiety and insomnia have a bidirectional relationship, meaning that either one can trigger the other (4).

This can create a negative feedback loop:

  • Sleep deprivation increases anxiety levels
  • Anxiety levels worsen sleep quality

There’s a chance that this cycle snowballs out of control and leads to someone developing insomnia.

SummaryIt’s important to try and treat or correct any sleep deprivation or anxiety symptoms as soon as possible to reduce the chance that they worsen each other and lead to long term health problems.

How Do You Know If You Are Sleep Deprived?

I’ve previously written a full guide to how to know if you’re sleep deprived, but I’ll give you the highlights here for convenience:

  • Even losing just a few hours of sleep (depending on where you start from) can start to cause sleep deprivation symptoms (e.g. anxiety, alertness, motor function).
  • Regular interruptions during sleep can lead to sleep deprivation, as your brain is not able to spend adequate amounts of time in each sleep stage.
  • You can use an online sleep deprivation test to get an idea if you might be sleep deprived or not. Note that this is only a guide, and an assessment from a doctor is needed for confirmation.

Other Effects of Sleep Deprivation

Sleep deprivation can cause nausea, as well as other side effects like (5):

  • Headaches
  • Vomiting
  • Lower libido
  • Poorer concentration
  • Impaired cognitive performance

All of those are significant short-term consequences of poor sleep.

However, if sleep deprivation continues over a longer time period, it can develop into chronic insomnia.

Insomnia has some scary side effects, including weight gain, heart problems, and depression.

SummaryAnxiety is only one of the consequences of sleep deprivation. If you believe you are sleep deprived, it’s important to address it as soon as possible to prevent long-term issues. If the solution isn’t obvious (i.e. make more time for sleep), you should consult a doctor for a treatment plan.

References

  1. Effects of acute sleep deprivation on state anxiety levels: a systematic review and meta-analysis
  2. A test of the effects of acute sleep deprivation on general and specific self-reported anxiety and depressive symptoms: An experimental extension
  3. Sleep in the anxiety-related disorders: A meta-analysis of subjective and objective research
  4. A bidirectional relationship between anxiety and depression, and insomnia? A prospective study in the general population
  5. Sex, Sleep Deprivation, and the Anxious Brain

Medical Disclaimer: The information on SnoozeUniversity.com is not intended to be a substitute for physician or other qualified care. We simply aim to inform people struggling with sleep issues about the nature of their condition and/or prescribed treatment.


About the authorDale is the founder of Snooze University and a sleep researcher. I overcame my sleep issues and now I'd like to help you do the same by summarizing the latest sleep studies for you.