How Sleep Affects Your Relationships, According to Science
In a properly functioning body, sleep helps the brain process your emotions and memories from the day. You wake up well-rested with enough mental space to both create and log new memories and work through the experiences of your day.
Sleep deprivation, on the other hand, is like falling into an icy river: “The body shuts down circulation to the appendages and tries to keep the core warm. It goes into survival mode,” says W. Christopher Winter, a neurologist based in Charlottesville, VA and the author of The Sleep Solution. When you’re not sleeping well, “your brain’s ability to do things gets whittled down to: find food, urinate, get through the day,” he says.
That means superfluous activities—like conversations with your partner, social outings or remembering to pick up the dry cleaning—go out the window.
Which is why sleep is more paramount to your relationships than you think. “All of the things it takes to make a relationship work are probably completely decimated by lack of sleep,” says Winter.
Here are three ways sleep impacts relationships—and how to gain the energy to fight back.
Your emotions are thrown out of whack
Ever feel like you just want your partner to get to the point of the story already, or that you’re a little more anxious than usual after an all-nighter? You might just be a bit tired.
When you’re sleep-deprived, the part of your brain that ties emotions to memories—the amygdala—doesn’t function properly, Winter says. That could take form in the amygdala releasing more or less neurotransmitters, which Winter says could lead you to overreact or not notice someone else’s emotions, respectively. In fact, a 2013 study published in the journal Psychosomatic Medicine found that the amygdala activity to stressors in poor sleepers predicted symptoms of depression and perceived stress.
In short: When we’re deprived of sleep, we’re more likely to overreact to situations that normally wouldn’t rattle us. “This can lead to more conflict and less satisfying relationships,”says Jennifer L. Martin, a clinical psychologist and behavioral sleep medicine specialist at UCLA.
“If you have ever seen a 2-year-old who skipped a nap, you can see a version of how we all react to sleep deprivation in terms of our emotions,” says Martin. “Small problems seem bigger. Our reactions are amplified. Some studies show that people are more likely to feel sad, depressed, or anxious if they don’t sleep well or if they are sleep-deprived.”
Unfortunately, Martin says, this is compounded by the fact that we don’t usually notice this amplification of our emotional reactions.