Sleep is the perfect facilitator for mindfulness, putting a distance between us and negative experiences we face, in order to process them in context and move on despite them. However, with 30% of the nation experiencing chronic sleep deprivation and insomnia, and nearly 95% of these people reporting ‘low energy levels’, could this be the instigator of our depression and anxiety epidemic? Throughout this project, I will be exploring the eventualities of this statement, reasoning with the effect of poor sleep on mental health.
The most common sleep disorder, Insomnia, is characterized by difficulty in falling or staying asleep. In recent years more research has arisen along the lines of sleep deprivation, honing in on ‘restless’ sleep, specifically during the REM phase. A lack of ‘good’ REM sleep has been linked to insomnia for many years and potentially gives a raised risk of experiencing anxiety or chronic depression, as the patient’s ability to overcome emotional distress is not as explored during sleep, so is, in turn, faced during their waking hours. This is therefore creating a vicious and sleepless cycle, where sleep deprivation could be seriously affecting mental health, and those with mental health issues are more likely to develop insomnia.
What is REM sleep?
The US National Institute of Disorders and Stroke have found there to be five key phases in a nights sleep, which go from light to deep to REM sleep. This cycle then repeats itself multiple times throughout the night. REM phase, the last phase of sleep, is where rapid eye movement, dreaming, bodily movement and faster pulse/breathing occurs. Experts believe that REM sleep triggers parts of the brain critical to learning and healthy development in children.
The new research that has taken place surrounding the importance of REM sleep stemmed from the idea that key arousal hormones such as serotonin, adrenaline and dopamine are inactive during REM sleep. Serotonin in the brain regulates anxiety, happiness, and mood. Low levels of it have been associated with depression. Adrenaline’s main purpose is to prepare the body for the ‘fight or flight’ response in times of stress. It does this by increasing the heart rate, increasing blood pressure and expanding the air passages of the lungs. In studies recently done by Rick Wassing, this indicates that the emotional impact of memories is only resolved and processed during REM sleep, as this is when your bodies important mood inducing hormones (Serotonin and Adrenaline) take a break.
Rick Wassing’s study
Rick Wassing’s * study overall pointed to REM sleep being the most likely candidate involved in the regulation of emotions. Restless REM sleep could therefore interfere with these overnight coping mechanisms put in place surrounding emotional distress, therefore leading to a build up of mental trauma, and a mental health issue forming, like depression, anxiety or PTSD. The Dutch also conducted a two-part stud to explore how REM sleep is important for emotional regulation. The lab monitored part included 19 women and 13 men (average age of 36)- half of whom had no previous sleep problems and the other half who were sufferers of insomnia. This group took part in two nights of monitored sleep, where their brain electrical activity was recorded, via use of electroencephalography. They all then proceeded to complete questionnaire on their possible experiences with troubling night time thoughts.
The overall result was that the more their REM sleep was disturbed, the more trouble the patients had at putting aside their emotional trauma. This also lead to distress building up and the feelings of arousal, leading to an even more restless sleep. Knowing this, Wassing and other scientists (at Harvard University) felt that alleviating restless REM sleep would be a more reasonable approach to combating lots of psychological illnesses head on, due to the implications that restless REM sleep has.
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