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How Good Sleep Makes You More Resilient

Resilience is key to rebounding from life's setbacks and coping well with challenges. Here's how sleep helps strengthen your resilience muscle.

Janet Ungless
Janet Ungless

· 5 min read

The ability to pick yourself up when you get decked, to rise above what threatens to wear you down, is resilience. And it’s a crucial component to weathering life’s challenges.

“Resiliency is the key to rebounding from life’s personal and professional setbacks, thereby helping to prevent depression, better manage stress, improve physical and psychological health, and live a fulfilled life,” says Andrew Shatte, PhD, keynote speaker, thought leader, and research professor in the Medical School of the University of Arizona. And it’s a skill worth developing.

So how do we boost our resilience — pick ourselves up after a failure, an unexpected health issue, a crumbling relationship, or … a 2+ year global pandemic? (As if our pre-pandemic life didn’t have enough stressors.)

Especially during the last couple of years our resilience has been put to the test. Many of us feel stuck in a prolonged state of emotional, mental, and physical exhaustion, running on empty across the board. “Burnt out” is described by the World Health Organization as “feelings of energy depletion…” Does that phrase ring a bell?

One of the ways to strengthen resilience is learning to become more emotionally aware, which means taking notice of your emotions in trying situations — anger, frustration, sadness, anxiety — in order to better manage them. Emotional regulation helps keep you more centered, whether you’re reframing a situation in a positive light, or figuring out next steps with clear proactive thinking. Emotional dysregulation can drain your energy and your mental and emotional resources.

There is something that you do on a regular basis that, if done well, can help you flex your resilience muscle. And you can probably guess what it is.

Sleep affects emotional regulation

It is widely accepted that sleep is important for processing daily challenges and emotions. Scientific literature has shown how good sleep appears essential to our ability to cope with emotional stress in everyday life, and that its loss affects emotional reactivity and socialization.

But exactly how does a lack of sleep impact our emotional brain? Why does poor sleep make us so emotionally irrational and hyper-reactive?

Sleep scientist Matt Walker, PhD, and his colleagues were curious. So they conducted a brain imaging study on a group of healthy adults — after being either well rested or sleep deprived. Using an MRI scanner they focused on one part of the brain in particular called the amygdala, “one of the centerpiece regions for the generation of strong emotional reactions, including negative emotional reactions,” explained Walker during a 2020 TED Talk.

Those participants who’d had a full night’s sleep showed an appropriate, moderate degree of reactivity from the amygdala. “In those who were sleep deprived, however, that deep emotional brain center was in fact hyperactive, almost 60% more responsive. But why was that the case?”

What Walker et al went on to discover is that there’s another brain region that’s involved in emotional regulation, the prefrontal cortex. “Think of the PFC almost like the CEO of your brain, making executive, high-level, top-down control decisions and reactions,” Walker explained.  “It’s one of the most evolved regions of our brain, and one of the parts of the brain that it controls is this deep emotional center, the amygdala.

“In [our] study, participants who’d had a full night’s sleep had a nice strong communication and connection between the PFC regulating that deep emotional brain center, the amygdala. But in those who were sleep deprived, that communication, that connection, between the PFC and the amygdala had essentially been severed.” Consequently, the amygdala was responding far more reactively due to a lack of sleep.

A uni project I did, where I used self portrait to best look at a Societal issue and how we could look at it using photography.
Photo by Callum Skelton / Unsplash

It’s as though there was no traffic cop to slow the emotional responses down. “We become all emotional accelerator pedal and too little regulatory control brain,” said Walker. “That seems to be the reason we become so unbuckled when we haven’t been sleeping well.”

Good-quality sleep, particularly rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, serves as a form of emotional first aid. “It’s during sleep that we [process] difficult emotional experiences that we’ve been having during the day. And sleep acts as an almost nocturnal soothing balm, taking the sharp edges off difficult emotional experiences” … so that the next day, when we’re well rested, “we’re able to cope with those emotional memories.”

Sleep influences our mindset

According to Shatte, to ensure our survival, human antennae were designed to react to the merest whiff of danger, which back in the day meant a hungry bear or an aggressive, club-wielding cave neighbor. To this day, our brains still tend to be hardwired toward the negative. “As a result, we live more fully in our negative emotions than our positive emotions,” Shatte said.

That means to nurture resilience “you have to make an effort to switch your focus.”

Knowing how our brain’s emotional center is affected by lack of sleep, it’s not surprising that poor sleep can keep us in a more negative mindset, and increase what psychologists call repetitive negative thinking — when your mind is stuck in a negative place, going over the same thoughts again and again. This negative thought loop can have a huge impact on how you feel and function, and keep you from thinking proactively and “recalibrating from a negative to a positive mindset” – a trait of resiliency.

Scientists also found that the greater the sleep deprivation, the more difficult it was for people to turn their minds away from ruminating on negative thoughts, feelings, and experiences, leaving them trapped in that negative thinking cycle.

On the other hand, a recent study found that when people sleep longer than usual, they tend to be able to have more positive experiences, and appreciate the positives more, both the next day and in the long term. "And they were able to maintain their positive emotions, even when they encountered something stressful," according to Nancy Sin, PhD, assistant professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia who led the study.

"Our study extends [previous] findings to suggest that the impacts of sleep on positive emotions can . . . be observed in daily life,” added doctoral student Jin Wen, a co-author of the study.

Sleep connects us to our support system of family and friends

Research shows that being connected — to other people, or to something beyond ourselves — is essential for wellbeing and a huge buffer against stress. It not only enriches your life — the greater the connection, the greater your resilience, said Shatte — but the outward focus and feelings of belonging build up inner strength to draw upon to help you weather any storm.

Studies have shown that one of the benefits of good sleep is more gratitude and appreciation for relationships in our lives. Sleep deprivation is associated with less empathy, emotional recognition, and appreciation, all of which are essential for healthy supportive relationships. These skills of self-awareness, appreciation for others, and empathy are components of our emotional intelligence—and sleep deprivation impairs them, often weakening our bonds of trust and communication in the relationships that are most important, and supportive, to us.

Think about everything that goes into communicating well and nourishing relationships—reasoning, attention, facility with language, empathy and recognition of others’ feelings. Not to mention humor, compassion, and patience, especially with close family and friends. “That’s an incredibly complex range of cognitive skills that all need to activate at once,” according to Michael J. Breus, PhD, clinical psychologist, Diplomate of the American Board of Sleep Medicine and a Fellow of The American Academy of Sleep Medicine.  “Every single one of those skills is compromised by poor sleep.”

Sleep colors how we view the world around us. Restful sleep goes a long way toward maintaining an optimistic outlook, being less reactive and more clear headed, and strengthening our supportive relationships.  Sleeping well fortifies you against life’s stressors when they inevitably happen—in other words, sleep makes you more resilient.

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