How Poor Sleep Contributes to Our Anxiety

All the emotions and arousals that were not discharged or dealt with during daytime will continuously linger in our brains until such time that we fall asleep, these lingering thoughts will then produce dreams. The more thoughts are being added up to our brain, even those simple worries that were not resolved during the day will add up to our poor brainís queue of worries.


Disturbed sleep is an extremely common feature of generalized anxiety. This is distressing and debilitating enough in itself but it also plays a significant part in the feelings of depression that often accompany anxiety, as we shall explain.

Everybody appreciates a good night’s sleep. But what constitutes a good night’s sleep is much more complex than previously thought. Sleep is not just the brain turning off and resting. Every night, we need a quota of two kinds – slow wave sleep and dream sleep (also called rapid eye movement or REM sleep because our eyes dart around behind our closed eyelids during this phase).

During slow-wave sleep, the day-to-day wear and tear on our bodily tissues is repaired; brain cells are recharged with sugars and our immune system is refreshed. But, in dream sleep, our brain services our emotional intelligence system. In effect, dreaming is an inbuilt super stress-control mechanism, one of nature’s most incredible developments, without which complex mammals like us could not have evolved. So, to use a computer analogy, slow wave sleep repairs the hardware and dream sleep repairs the software – our thoughts and emotions.

After 12 years of research, trying to puzzle out why we evolved to dream, scientists showed that the role of dreaming is to deactivate the emotional expectations and anxiety fighting that we get worked up about during the day and which are still taking up space in our brains when we fall asleep.

They discovered that what needs discharging are not the arousals that were expressed during the day, perhaps by having a heated argument with our partner, or taking evasive action, such as steering round and managing to avoid a dramatic motorway accident; it is the arousals that aren’t expressed or acted out that produce dreams.

These arousals stew away all day below consciousness, waiting to be dealt with, and, if they are still there when we fall asleep, the arousal pattern is completed by being acted out metaphorically in our dreams. This sets our brain free to face the next day’s emotional concerns. In other words, we dream out the emotionally arousing expectations, which, unconsciously, our emotional brain was still expecting to have happened.

This is one of those scientific discoveries that are easy to confirm from your own experience. Every day we generate countless expectations – emotional arousals, positive or negative – that don’t work out. These can range from major ones, such as setting one’s heart on a new house but not knowing if things are going to work out, to minor ones, like considering for a moment taking a proffered piece of cake and then thinking better of it.

Thoughts about the house would keep surfacing, even though we might instantly forget the cake, but both expectations would remain live in the brain at an instinctive, emotional level. This is because a primitive urge has been activated – to move towards something that is desired (the house) or to eat something (the cake) – and, just like other primitive survival urges (for sex, warmth or safety etc.), it has to be discharged in some way or another, once aroused. Sometimes they make into dreams and can show up as anxiety while sleeping.

The same is true for other mammals as it is for us. If the urges were not discharged, our survival instincts would weaken. For what would be the point of having the instincts that urge us to eat, drink, run away, have sex, etc., if we ignored them most of the time?

Yet we do override them a great deal of the time because we don’t eat every time we see something that whets our appetite or have sex every time we see a person that attracts us.

Clearly, we still need those instincts available to us for the right times and places. So nature’s clever way to keep instinctive programs intact is to ‘act out’ or complete in our dreams the expectations that were not fulfilled while we were awake.

The brain can only do this when all the senses are shut down, as they are in REM sleep. And, because we can’t fulfill the expectations in ‘real’ time, the brain uses metaphors, patterns drawn from memory, which correspond emotionally to the expectations not acted out.

The unfulfilled expectations that give rise to dreams can be surprisingly varied. For instance, even seeing something on television that makes us angry or alarmed can be sufficient to generate a dream. (As parents are well aware, children often wake up from nightmares generated by something scary seen on the television.)

More importantly, for our purposes here, an almost bottomless pit of unfulfilled expectations is produced by … constant worrying. And that brings its own special problems.

Let us imagine that Elizabeth: instead of dropping off into a comfortable, soothing sleep when she goes to bed, lies there every night with different worries going round and round in her head – “What if I don’t get the car to the garage the minute it opens. I’ll have to wait in the queue to book it in and then I’ll be late for the train. Then I’ll have no time to get the room prepared for the meeting. And what if I don’t get a seat on the train? I can’t stand with my bad back. But it would be so embarrassing to ask for a seat! Lucy’s got her mock Math GCSE tomorrow. I wonder if she packed her calculator. I’m sure I saw it downstairs, when she was studying. Did she pick it up? I think she must have. Or did she? I must remember to check the table when I get up. Perhaps I should do it now? No, it’s too cold. Oh, I’d better. No, it will disturb the cat, if I go down there. He’ll think I’m going to feed him … ”

By thinking all of this, Elizabeth is reliably building up more and more software maintenance for her poor dreaming brain to carry out. And that is added to all the worries that have been whirring around in her head all day that are already in the queue.

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