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Why Sleep Deprivation Makes Us So Angsty

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As someone who needs a lot of sleep to function, one crappy night's sleep can easily make me lash out toward anyone who so much as looks at me funny the next day. While I always assumed this was a personality flaw in need of workshopping, new research published in The Journal of Neuroscience suggests it may not be my fault after all. Turns out, sleep deprivation can impair your ability to control your emotions, causing you to overreact to every day challenges. (Although, good news, recent research shows Sleep Deprivation Isn't Something Most Americans Need to Worry About.)

In the study, researchers from Tel Aviv University discovered that hyper-emotional reactions were linked to lower amounts of REM (rapid eye movement) sleep—vital for memory, learning and mental performance. They had 18 volunteers memorize sets of numbers while being forced to ignore distracting pictures that were either unpleasant or neutral. Each person completed the memorization task on two different days: once following a normal night’s sleep of seven to nine hours and again after being kept awake for 24 hours straight. (Sounds like my worst nightmare.)

All the while, researchers were recording brain activity, looking specifically at the amygdala and the prefrontal cortex, parts of the brain that process emotions (activity in the amygdala is higher when we're experiencing emotions such as anger, pleasure, sorrow, fear, and sexual arousal).

Researchers found that when people were well-rested, their amygdala's responded strongly to the negative pictures as expected, and weren't affected by the neutral images. Those who were sleep deprived though, showed similarly high levels of activity in the amygdala for both the unpleasant and neutral photos, and activity was significantly reduced in the emotion-regulating prefrontal cortex. (Psst: Will One Night of Poor Sleep Affect Your Workout?) In real life, this could show itself through normally neutral events—a phone ringing, your boyfriend asking you questions, the line at Starbucks—driving you nuts.

Essentially, sleep deprivation disables the brain's ability to accurately discriminate between what warrants an emotional and response and what doesn't. (Shockingly, science also shows that Sleep Deprivation Can Increase Productivity at Work.) So your best bet is to hold off on any rash actions or decisions (barking on the phone, snapping at your boyfriend, storming out of the coffee shop) and, well, sleep on it. Science says things really will look better in the morning—so long as you get your zzz's.

Having trouble getting to eight hours of beauty rest? We've got you covered with these Science-Backed Strategies to Sleep Better.

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