Unwanted thoughts? Study reveals sleep deprivation could have a role to play

Your lack of sleep can be the reason behind those unwanted thoughts brimming in your head. If you don’t believe us, then read what this study has to say.
sleep deprivation
Sleep deprivation can be the reason behind your unwanted thoughts! Image courtesy: Unsplash
ANI Published: 21 Oct 2020, 18:53 pm IST
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Keep tossing and turning at night with lots of unwanted thoughts going around your head? Let’s face it: the pandemic and lockdown has made falling asleep a lot difficult for many of us. And this lack of sleep significantly impairs our ability to stop the flow of unwanted and unpleasant thoughts from entering our mind.

In fact, researchers from the University of York found that this lack of sleep could have implications for people suffering from psychiatric conditions associated with unwanted thoughts—such as post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and schizophrenia.

The study found that sleep-deprived participants have 50% more unwanted thoughts

The study tested the ability of participants to suppress intrusive thoughts when they were either sleep-deprived or well-rested. Sleep-deprived participants suffered an increase in unwanted thoughts of nearly 50% compared to those who had a good night’s sleep.

The lead author of the study, Dr Marcus Harrington, from the Department of Psychology at the University of York, said: “In everyday life, mundane encounters can remind us of unpleasant experiences. For example, a car driving too fast on the motorway might cause us to retrieve unwanted memories from a car accident many years ago. For most people, thought intrusions pass quickly, but for those suffering with psychiatric conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder, they can be repetitive, uncontrollable, and distressing.”

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“It is clear that the ability to suppress unwanted thoughts varies dramatically between individuals, but until now the factors that drive this variability have been mysterious. Our study suggests sleep loss has a considerable impact on our ability to keep unwanted thoughts out of our minds,” added Harrington.

This is how the study was conducted 

Sixty healthy participants learnt to associate faces with photographs of emotionally negative scenes such as an image from a war zone or neutral scenes such as an image of a cityscape.

The following morning, after a night of either sleep or total sleep deprivation, participants were shown the faces and asked to try to suppress thoughts related to the scenes with which they were paired.

The study found that…

When compared to the sleep group, the sleep-deprived participants had much more difficulty keeping unwanted thoughts of the emotionally negative and neutral scenes from their minds. 

While the task became easier with the practice for the rested participants, for those who lacked sleep, thought intrusions remained consistently high.

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Keep unwanted thoughts away for the sake of your mental health. Image courtesy: Shutterstock

The sleep group’s success at suppressing unwanted thoughts caused them to view the negative scenes more positively after the suppression task, and they also showed a reduced sweat response when the negative scenes were presented. 

In contrast, the sleep deprivation group’s failure to keep unwanted thoughts out of mind meant that they did not experience this positive change in their responses.

“This study offers an important insight into the impact of sleep on mental health. Besides post-traumatic stress disorder and depression, our findings might have implications for our understanding of other disorders linked to sleep disturbances, such as obsessive-compulsive disorder and schizophrenia,” senior author of the study, Dr Scott Cairney, from the Department of Psychology at the University of York, said.

“The study also suggests that the onset of intrusive thoughts and emotional disturbances following bouts of poor sleep could create a vicious cycle, whereby upsetting intrusions and emotional distress exacerbate sleep problems, inhibiting the sleep needed to support recovery,” added Cairney.

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