It’s estimated that some 40 million American adults have an anxiety disorder, and the condition is also rising among children and teens, which doesn’t bode well for the future, either. While there are currently a variety of anti-anxiety medications on the market, the American healthcare system itself is an incredible stressor for many. If we can find an affordable non-pharmaceutical anxiety treatment, something appropriate for young people and hopefully without the possible side effects of a pill, we will improve countless lives.
Now, researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, believe they might’ve found an answer, and it’s free, although unfortunately, not freely available to all. The magic salve for a brain pickling itself in anxious thoughts, these new findings suggest, is sleep—specifically, NREM (non-rapid eye movement) slow-wave sleep. This state occurs deep into slumber, when brainwaves sync up in a serious way, and the body experiences a drop in both heart rate and blood pressure.
The Berkeley study presents one of the strongest links between sleep and anxiety management seen thus far. 18 young adults were shown emotionally affecting video clips, both after a good night’s sleep and after a night of staying up. In both cases, their brains were scanned, and they completed a questionnaire known as the state-strait anxiety inventory, to (as you might imagine) measure their relative levels of anxiety.
In scans of the sleepless brains, the medial prefrontal cortex, which normally helps manage anxiety levels, was shut down, and the deeper emotional centers were overactive. In scans of those same brains but after a night of good sleep (as monitored by electrodes placed on the head), anxiety levels were considerably lower, especially for the people who had experienced a lot of NREM slumber.
It’s true that 18 is a scant sample size in the world of experimental science, but in this particular case, researchers were later able to replicate these results with another sample of 30 participants. Beyond that, they created an online study tracking sleep and anxiety over four days, with 280 people taking part, and again achieved similar results.
“We have identified a new function of deep sleep, one that decreases anxiety overnight by reorganizing connections in the brain,” says UC Berkeley professor and study senior author Matthew Walker. “Deep sleep seems to be a natural anxiolytic (anxiety inhibitor), so long as we get it each and every night.”
It’s worth noting that while 40 million American adults have anxiety, the American Sleep Association reports that sleep deprivation in the U.S. is at epidemic levels, with 11% of adults reporting chronic insomnia, while 50 to 70% experience some sort of sleep issue. In fact, anxiety itself can be a cause of insomnia. If you suspect that your stress and anxiety are keeping you up at night, it’s maybe more important than ever to check out the Sleep Foundation’s recommendations on how to relax before bed, so that you can catch those good, restorative Z’s.