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Not Getting Enough Sleep Makes It More Difficult to Unlearn Fear

·347 words·2 mins
Psyched for the Weekend

Stressful jobs can lead to you not getting enough sleep. And as it turns out, not getting enough sleep can make it easier for stressful fearful events to take hold of us.  Today’s study drills down into this vicious cycle with the help of brain imaging.

Prior to this experiment, one third of the study participants slept normally, another third slept half of the night, and the final third did not sleep at all.

In this study, participants were conditioned in the morning to experience fear when shown certain colors after those colors were paired with a mild electric shock. Following this fear conditioning protocol, they were then presented those same colors without an electric shock, demonstrating that the colors were now safe.

(Yes, this is a little mad scientist, isn’t it? Oh well. The IRB must have approved their study, so that’s none of my business.)

Later on in the day, during the evening hours, subjects were then presented the colors again, and their expectation of whether the colors were safe or not was retested, measured on brain imaging scan.

Perhaps surprisingly, those who got no sleep at all resembled the full-night sleep group. This would suggest that when it comes to unlearning fear that no sleep at all might be preferable to insufficient sleep.

Those who had only gotten half a night’s sleep stood out from the rest of study participants. They were still afraid of the conditioned stimulus. Their brains had not learned that it was safe.

The researchers noted that this study suggests that people who are getting limited sleep are especially vulnerable to developing fear-based conditions like PTSD or anxiety.  This is of particular concern because people in occupations prone to developing the condition (soldiers, medical workers, first responders, etc.) often have shorter sleeping periods as a matter of course.


This post is part of an ongoing Poly Land feature called Psyched for the Weekend, in which I geek out with brief takes about some of my favorite psychological studies and concepts. For the entire series, please see this link.



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