Everyone gets angry… occasionally. Especially during periods of high stress. It’s also safe to say that right now, during both a global pandemic and a heated election period, many Americans are feeling anxious and dealing with additional circumstances that may be causing anger.

Perhaps you can relate?

But while anger stems from many sources, lack of quality sleep appears to be an unacknowledged factor worsening feelings of anger and troubling emotions. In fact, ranging from sleep disorders such as insomnia or sleep apnea to simply not prioritizing sleep, emerging research suggests that skimping on sleep is one of the worst things you can do for regulating your emotions and mood.

If you’re struggling to maintain a positive attitude, especially right now when facing additional life challenges, lack of sleep may be to blame. At least that’s what new research points to after investigating the psychological effects of missed sleep and anger.

Sleep Deprivation and Emotions

In many ways, it isn’t surprising that sleep deprivation can increase feelings of anger. Previous sleep literature has discussed the troubling connection between stress and sleep, and just how real the mind and body connection is.

Both sleep duration and sleep quality can increase negative emotions, such as stress and depression.

A study conducted by researchers at the University of Pennsylvania found that, when participants restricted their sleep to a mere 4-5 hours per night, they were significantly more likely to experience feelings of low self esteem, worry, and stress.

While there are multiple factors, that study, and others, have pointed to daytime fatigue as the main link between lack of sleep and these negative moods. When you are fatigued, your stress threshold lowers, which means you’re more vulnerable to feeling overwhelmed, even from everyday stresses.

If you want to be able to handle stress, including your normal daily stressors, better than getting the recommended amount of sleep can help.

Lack of Sleep and Anger

In addition to leaving people more emotionally vulnerable, lack of sleep can increase how emotions are experienced. A 2018 review of previous studies, published in Cureus, specifically investigated the role of the amygdala in emotion regulation for sleep deprived individuals.

The amygdala, located in the brain and part of the limbic system, plays an important role in regulating emotions. The limbic system is responsible for reward experiences and helps process negative emotions such as fear, stress, and anger.

The 2018 publication reviewed current research published within the last five years, specifically detailing the association of sleep with anger. Researchers found the subject of sleep and anger lacked a significant level of study, especially when compared to the volumes of research investigating sleep and behavior. However, they were able to identify 17 studies on the subject of anger and sleep.

Results from the 17 studies support a strong connection between increased anger and aggression and sleep deprivation. The results were consistent across the board regardless of age or gender.  One 2020 study, conducted using daily diaries, found people who slept less showed more intense aggression than people in the well-slept control group.

So what does this mean for you? There were three main troubling associations found in the research that underscore the importance of making sure you get enough sleep each night.

Sleep Deprivation and the Brain

We mentioned the amygdala earlier, and how it’s the part of the brain associated with emotions. It’s also important for processing memory, and even how you react to negative or positive events.

So it’s not surprising this part of the brain is affected by how much or how well you sleep. In one study spanning 10 nights, males were studied to determine the impact of sleep deprivation and how the amygdala functions. Magnetic resonance imaging was used to measure the blood flow in the cortex and amygdala.

Combined with self evaluation, there was a strong correlation between decreased blood flow, lack of sleep, and feelings such as anger and aggression. Therefore, if you want your amygdala to function well, and keep the feelings of anger at bay – get your recommended 7-9 hours of sleep!

Sleep Deprivation and Impulsivity

Impulsivity, accompanied by disregarding of social norms may also increase with sleep deprivation. And with it, usually comes feelings of anger and aggression. A study of first year medical students in Mexico found that sleep deprivation increased not only feelings of anxiety but also anger. The cross-sectional study used a symptom checklist, and tracked nearly 600 students along with their sleep.

Sleep Deprivation and Aggression

Aggression, often but not always accompanied by feelings of anger, may also rise with reduced sleep duration. In one study, researchers used the Buss-Perry Questionnaire to measure aggression and anger in young adults. Increased aggression, anger and hostility was associated with sleep deprivation, though more research is needed to assess other populations.

Sleep Disorders and Anger

Although there is a fraction of research on sleep and anger when compared to the amount of research performed on sleep and behavior, the more research conducted on the topic, the more evidence suggests that sleeping less leads to increased aggression and anger. So it naturally follows suit that sleep disorders can likewise make individuals more susceptible to anger. Some sleep disorder studies have even linked  sleep deprivation and anger, especially amongst children and adolescents.

Sleep Apnea and Anger

Sleep apnea, also known as obstructive sleep apnea, is a serious sleep disorder where breathing is labored and stops during sleep. While potentially life threatening, it’s often under diagnosed, with subtle symptoms like daytime sleepiness.

In children, sleep apnea has been tied to behavioral problems, especially anger and aggression. The longitudinal study, conducted by researchers at the College of Medicine at Yeshiva University, followed 11,000 children for six years. Children with sleep apnea or breathing problems affecting sleep were as much as 40 percent more likely to display anger, aggression, or related misbehavior, compared to those without sleep and breathing problems.

Insomnia and Anger

Insomnia and its many causes, has also been studied as a sleep disorder potentially tied to anger and higher degrees of expressing anger. While previously conducted research looked for connections between insomnia, depression, and anxiety, a new focus on the link between insomnia and anger could also prove compelling.

One such study includes a random sample of 749 high school students from 27 high schools were scored using three metrics: the Individual Characteristics Form, the Trait Anger/Anger Expression Inventory, and the Insomnia Severity Index.

The study results, published in the Journal of Child and Adolescent Psychiatric Nursing, found a positive correlation between insomnia and expression of both anger and aggression. Even more, as the severity of insomnia increased, so too did the severity of emotions displayed.

How to let go of Anger and Sleep Better

If you’re noticing difficulty controlling your own feelings of anger or even struggling to stay positive, consider how much sleep you’re getting. Now, more than ever, it’s critical to address emotional issues that may be related to sleep issues.

If you or a loved one are experiencing heightened emotions, increasing anger issues, or lack of positivity, listed below are a few steps you can take to turn things around.

Lifestyle Changes

Lifestyle changes can make a big difference for your sleep health and emotional health.

  • Set a regular sleep routine (that includes sticking to a consistent bedtime and wake up time)
  • Get regular physical activity
  • Eat a healthy diet with lots of magnesium rich plant foods
  • Avoid stimulants, like coffee, later in the day (avoid caffeine after 2:00 pm)
  • Turn off your electronics at least 30 minutes before bed (at least wear blue light blocking glasses if you’re going to use electronics)

Alternative practices to lower stress levels, such as yoga and meditation, may also be instrumental in managing sleep, stress, and even anger or aggression.

If you’re trying to get the recommended 7-9 hours of sleep at night, but still struggling and need more ideas on how to fall asleep and stay asleep, check out our recent article 5 Tips to Help You Fall Asleep and Stay Asleep

If you’re dealing with a sleep disorder, check out our article on home remedies to help manage sleep apnea and other sleep disorders.

Get a Sleep Check Up

If you’re not getting good sleep at night, and your doctor has ruled out other medical conditions, now’s the time to get your sleep assessed. You can make an appointment with a local sleep center, where specialists can run tests to diagnose potential sleep disorders and offer a comprehensive treatment plan if needed.

 

 

 

 

References

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Dinges DF, Pack F, Williams K, Gillen KA, Powell JW, Ott GE, Aptowicz C, Pack AI. Cumulative sleepiness, mood disturbance, and psychomotor vigilance performance decrements during a week of sleep restricted to 4-5 hours per night. Sleep. 1997 Apr;20(4):267-77. PMID: 9231952.

Saghir Z, Syeda JN, Muhammad AS, Balla Abdalla TH. The Amygdala, Sleep Debt, Sleep Deprivation, and the Emotion of Anger: A Possible Connection?. Cureus. 2018;10(7):e2912. Published 2018 Jul 2. doi:10.7759/cureus.2912

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Motomura Y, Kitamura S, Nakazaki K, Oba K, Katsunuma R, Terasawa Y, Hida A, Moriguchi Y, Mishima K. Recovery from Unrecognized Sleep Loss Accumulated in Daily Life Improved Mood Regulation via Prefrontal Suppression of Amygdala Activity. Front Neurol. 2017 Jun 30;8:306. doi: 10.3389/fneur.2017.00306. PMID: 28713328; PMCID: PMC5491935.

Tafoya SA, Jurado MM, Yépez NJ, Fouilloux M, Lara MC. Dificultades del sueño y síntomas psicológicos en estudiantes de medicina de la ciudad de México [Sleep difficulties and psychological symptoms in medicine students in Mexico]. Medicina (B Aires). 2013;73(3):247-51. Spanish. PMID: 23732201.

Randler C, Vollmer C. Aggression in young adults–a matter of short sleep and social jetlag? Psychol Rep. 2013 Dec;113(3):754-65. doi: 10.2466/16.02.PR0.113x31z7. PMID: 24693810.

Slowik JM, Collen JF. Obstructive Sleep Apnea. [Updated 2020 Jun 7]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2020 Jan

Bonuck K, Freeman K, Chervin RD, Xu L. Sleep-disordered breathing in a population-based cohort: behavioral outcomes at 4 and 7 years. Pediatrics. 2012 Apr;129(4):e857-65. doi: 10.1542/peds.2011-1402. Epub 2012 Mar 5. PMID: 22392181; PMCID: PMC3313633.

Sisman, F. N., Basakci, D., & Ergun, A. (2020). The relationship between insomnia and trait anger and anger expression among adolescents. Journal of Child and Adolescent Psychiatric Nursing. doi:10.1111/jcap.12294