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How Your Emotions Can Affect Your Sleep

Our emotions, and how we feel them, can help or harm our rest.

Anthony Tran/Unsplash
Source: Anthony Tran/Unsplash

It may not surprise you that emotions and sleep have an intimate relationship. Just about anyone who's had a restless night awake knows that emotions can become more labile with stress and lack of sleep. As insomnia increases, our ability to regulate emotions decreases. We adapt and respond best when we've had good sleep, and, from the other direction, good sleep follows a day filled with more positive emotions. Common sense as this is, there are more specific details unfolding in this under-researched area of sleep regarding which emotions help, which ones harm, how we go about experiencing each feeling, and what we can do about it right now.

People with disrupted sleep rate themselves as more angry, anxious, tense, hostile, aggressive and oppositional than others, as well as more tired, irritable, and confused. Poor sleep is also associated with reduced optimism, reduced sociability, and more body pain—that easily become part of a vicious cycle of illness. There is also a tendency to judge neutral stimuli more negatively and this strains relationships contributing to the vicious cycle of poor sleep and health. Poor sleepers also have more repetitive thoughts and other cognitive disruptions, and the worst sleepers tend to suppress deeper anger and worry with ruminative thoughts—all reducing two key types of sleep. Rapid Eye Movement (REM) and Slow Wave Sleep (SWS) modulate and are modulated by emotions and play a direct role in the evolution of depression, anxiety, and other mood disorders. (See all references below.)

Emotions That Harm Sleep

  • Failure. Feelings of failure have been linked to reduced sleep efficiency, total sleep time (TST), and percentage of REM. Classic techniques of managing feelings of failure include reframing failure as healthy and normal, and even good for us. True as this may be, reframing is not as effective as we might hope. More on this in a moment.
  • Regret. As you might imagine, sleep worsens when our guilty conscience pangs us just before bedtime. Regret can be particularly sticky and difficult to work through. Our brains tend to hang onto the bad more easily than the good, especially when we are sleep-deprived and feeling regret does not always lead to amends or reconciliation.
  • Disconnection. Lack of sleep and fatigue can lead to flattened emotional facial expressions and this in turn can lead to reduced connection felt between people. (This phenomenon also occurs with botox injections and depression because micro facial expression is a key part of social connectedness). Poor co-regulation and disconnection worsens mood and sleep—another vicious cycle. Being able to express yourself authentically in a way people can connect enhances social ties, improve relationships, and thus sleep.
  • Fear and Worry. It is not your imagination that sleep is more broken before an exam or an operation. Even a brief disturbing film before bed can worsen mood and reduce Slow Wave Sleep (aka deep or delta wave sleep). Worry fragments sleep, moves REM earlier in the sleep cycle, and delays our ability to fall asleep.

REM sleep seems to help us process difficult and distressing emotions, as well as integrate disturbing or traumatic moments from the day into long-term memory. Stress increases the onset of REM as the brain is trying to adapt and manage the increased stress load. There is more dreaming activity with increased stress, perhaps attempting to help us cope with the allostatic load of accumulated stress.

Emotions That Aid Sleep

What emotions can help sleep and how can we increase those?

  • Gratitude. There is some evidence that gratitude is related to improved sleep quality. (Again, how we feel during the day predicts how quickly we fall asleep and how much total sleep we get.) So, how do we nurture gratitude? A regular gratitude practice of thinking about specific moments we appreciate may help sleep, as long as it is practiced genuinely. Gratitude can backfire if forced or simply becomes a proclamation of how others have it so much worse and we should just feel grateful. Slowing down and savoring the good in any moment can be a key part of a gratitude practice.
  • Trust. Good sleep is correlated with good social support, learning to trust ourselves, and honoring who we are. This, along with directly communicating how we feel to others goes hand-in-hand with healthy boundaries, voicing our feelings and wants in a respectful way, saying no, yes, or maybe when we need to in order to build trust with ourselves and others.
  • Romantic Love. The excitement of new love may delay the onset of sleep, but overall sleep is reported to be better—even when it isn’t. But overall well-being is boosted with romantic love, so I am keeping it in the “Helps Sleep” section.
  • Anger and Worry. Anger and fear that are expressed appropriately help sleep. Poor sleepers cope more often with suppression of emotions – actively trying to squash or not feel their real feelings, which has been found empirically to be most detrimental.

Will watching a video of baby goats before bedtime improve sleep?

Maybe. But even more so if it is combined with touching into the real emotions of the day - including work stress, grief, or hurt feelings, and connecting each emotion with a bodily sensation. Feeling our feelings -- connecting with a "felt sense" physically in the body does more good than just thinking things over. Analyzing the situation or how we feel is not enough; however, marinating in them may be too much. When practices too close to bedtime, feeling difficult feelings may delay sleep, but will still improve total sleep time and reduce sleep fragmentation. This is especially true for stresses that are out of our control. Acknowledge, understand, feel, and express emotions in healthy ways to facilitate sleep.

Better yet, schedule a time hours before bedtime to worry, grieve, and process other feelings from the day, whatever they are. Schedule a time and place, away from your bedroom if possible and spend 20 minutes or so each day. Design a "worry chair" or other space to give attention to the days ruminations before bedtime when those thoughts are prone to pop up.

Felix Koutchinski / Unsplash
Source: Felix Koutchinski / Unsplash

Are there other emotions to "dose" ourselves with before bed?


  • Love
  • Awe
  • Serenity
  • Peace
  • Satisfaction
  • Hope
  • Bliss
  • Calm
  • Contentment
  • Admiration
  • Amusement
  • Empathy
  • Confidence
  • Compassion
  • Forgiveness

Foster what you want to feel and feel what is.


Del Pozo, J. (2023). Sleep Anxiety, Insomnia and Rhythm Disruptions: A Complete Behavioral Treatment Plan for Improving Sleep and Co-Morbid Conditions. PESI Course.

Vandekerckhove, M., & Wang, Y. L. (2017). Emotion, emotion regulation and sleep: An intimate relationship. AIMS neuroscience, 5(1), 1–17.

Vandekerckhove M, Kestemont J, Weiss R, et al. (2012) Experiential versus analytical emotion regulation and sleep: breaking the link between negative events and sleep disturbance. Emotion 12: 1415–1421. doi: 10.1037/a0028501

Levin R, Nielsen T (2009) Nightmares, bad dreams, and emotion dysregulation: a review and new neurocognitive model of dreaming. Curr Dir Psychol Sci 18: 84–88. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-8721.2009.01614.x

Harvey, A. (2005). Unwanted intrusive thoughts in insomnia. Intrusive thoughts in clinical disorders: Theory, research, and treatment: 86–118.

Ree, M. J., Harvey, A. G., Blake, R., Tang, N. K., & Shawe-Taylor, M. (2005). Attempts to control unwanted thoughts in the night: development of the thought control questionnaire-insomnia revised (TCQI-R). Behaviour research and therapy, 43(8), 985–998.

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