Sleeping less than the recommended eight hours a night is linked with intrusive, repetitive negative thoughts like those seen in anxiety or depression, according to a study from Binghamton University, State University of New York.
Binghamton University Professor of Psychology Meredith Coles and former graduate student Jacob Nota assessed the timing and duration of sleep in individuals with moderate to high levels of repetitive negative thoughts (e.g., worry and rumination).
The research participants were exposed to different pictures intended to trigger an emotional response, and researchers tracked their attention through their eye movements.
The researchers discovered that regular sleep disruptions are associated with difficulty in shifting one's attention away from negative information.
This may mean that inadequate sleep is part of what makes negative intrusive thoughts stick around and interfere with people's lives.
"We found that people in this study have some tendencies to have thoughts get stuck in their heads, and their elevated negative thinking makes it difficult for them to disengage with the negative stimuli that we exposed them to," said Coles.
"While other people may be able to receive negative information and move on, the participants had trouble ignoring it," Coles added.
These negative thoughts are believed to leave people vulnerable to different types of psychological disorders, such as anxiety or depression, said Coles.
"We realized over time that this might be important — this repetitive negative thinking is relevant to several different disorders like anxiety, depression and many other things," said Coles.
"This is novel in that we're exploring the overlap between sleep disruptions and the way they affect these basic processes that help in ignoring those obsessive negative thoughts," Coles added.
The researchers are further exploring this discovery, evaluating how the timing and duration of sleep may also contribute to the development or maintenance of psychological disorders.
If their theories are correct, their research could potentially allow psychologists to treat anxiety and depression by shifting patients' sleep cycles to a healthier time or making it more likely a patient will sleep when they get in bed.