Deep Sleep Rewires Your Brain and Could Help Treat Anxiety

A new study finds you may be able to sleep your anxious mind away.

By Elizabeth Yuko, Ph.D.
March 20, 2020

After years and years of being reminded about the importance of sleep and the rise of the concept of “sleep hygiene,” it’s been drilled into our heads that sleep is this precious commodity. And while it definitely is, not all sleep is created equal. Now, a study out of the University of California, Berkeley found that non-rapid eye movement (NREM) slow-wave sleep can help reduce anxiety.

In fact, the research — which was published in the journal Nature Human Behaviour — indicates that NREM sleep may also be able to “rewire” your anxious brain. “We have identified a new function of deep sleep, one that decreases anxiety overnight by reorganizing connections in the brain,” study senior author Matthew Walker, Ph.D., a professor of neuroscience and psychology at the university, said in a statement. “Deep sleep seems to be a natural anxiolytic (anxiety inhibitor), so long as we get it each and every night.”

According to the study, sleep is essentially a natural, non-pharmaceutical remedy for anxiety disorders that could help the 40 million Americans living with the condition. When we don’t get enough sleep it could cause a shutdown of the part of the brain that regulates our anxiety levels. “Without sleep, it’s almost as if the brain is too heavy on the emotional accelerator pedal, without enough brake,” Walker added.

After a full night of sleep, the participants in the study had their brain waves measured and the results showed that their levels of anxiety decreased significantly — especially those who got more NREM sleep. “Deep sleep had restored the brain’s prefrontal mechanism that regulates our emotions, lowering emotional and physiological reactivity and preventing the escalation of anxiety,” lead author Eti Ben Simon, Ph.D., a postdoctoral fellow at the university’s Center for Human Sleep Science, said in a statement.

Of course, if you live with anxiety, then you know that getting a decent amount of restful sleep is easier said than done, but if nothing else, this discovery could help inform other treatments for the disorder. 

About the writer:

Dr. Elizabeth Yuko is a bioethicist and writer as well as an adjunct professor of ethics at Fordham University. She has written for print and online publications, including The New York TimesThe Washington PostThe AtlanticRolling StoneCNNFodor’sLifehackerReader’s Digest and Playboy.

Outlier Disclaimer

This site is for educational purposes and not a substitute for professional medical care by a doctor or otherwise qualified medical professional. The information provided by Outlier Magazine is on the understanding that it does not constitute medical or other professional advice or services.

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