By: Dani Kessel
When my partner and I got married, we asked couples at our wedding for notes of advice and encouragement. Many folks responded with the same advice. If you are in any kind of a serious relationship you’ve probably heard it: “Don’t go to bed angry.” But back in college, as a psychology student, we did a lot of discussion about the way that our brains, sleep cycles, attachment styles, and learned behaviors all play into the way we communicate and function in relationships. Because of my psychology background and my experience with relationships, I would like to share the validity of this advice.
Here’s the simplest breakdown: Numerous studies and insights into the brain reinforce that fighting while tired is a poor choice. Our knowledge about the sleep cycle further indicates that sleeping helps us process the events of our day, including any arguments, in the context of our previous experiences. Even our attachment styles affect the way we communicate in tense situations such as sleep deprivation. Overall, the suggestion not to go to bed angry is bad advice.
The brain’s impact: When we are tired, our brains don’t burn energy as effectively. This results in over-activation of the amygdala (the area of the brain responsible for emotional regulation) by as much as 60%, and it impairs and suppresses the prefrontal cortex (the area responsible for controlling impulsivity and using rational judgement). Without proper functioning, the amygdala and prefrontal cortex can exacerbate any late night argument. Your overly emotional responses can result in taking offense to things you would otherwise brush off. Research shows that the processing of both emotional and neutral images are equally affected by sleeplessness. This means that we can’t be properly neutral or impartial when sleep deprived. In addition, a lack of logic and self-control can lead to saying or doing something you don’t mean. Ration based communication is unattainable without full function of the prefrontal cortex.
The sleep cycle’s impact: During our sleep cycle, we experience 5 stages of sleep: light sleep (Stages 1 and 2), deep sleep (Stages 3 and 4), and Rapid Eye Movement (REM sleep). Light sleep is necessary because it transitions your body from wakeful body processes to sleep body processes; however, it does not appear to have an impact on memory. Deep sleep and REM sleep both play an integral role in processing, storing, and retrieving memories. In brain scans, psychologists discovered that deep sleep activates all parts of the brain responsible for memory, implying that deep sleep affects all parts of memory. Going through REM sleep, people’s brain activity increases to nearly that of an awake brain. Neurotransmitters which help create neural connections for learning, performing, problem solving, and memory all are replenished during REM sleep. The brain creates vivid dreams during this time. Leading sleep experts theorize that this brings memories of the day into the context of previous knowledge; this is based off of studies in which brain activation during REM sleep mirrored that of brain activation throughout the day. With all of this research and knowledge, it would stand to reason that sleeping angry allows the brain to come to revelations and conclusions which are bolstered by the process of storing and recalling memories.
Attachment style impact: The way that attachment styles influence our conflict resolution techniques suggests that we should go to sleep angry rather than trying to fight while tired. There are 4 main categories of adult attachment styles: Secure, Anxious, Avoidant, and Anxious-Avoidant. The psychology team at Kansas State University studied the way that folks with each attachment style handled conflict resolution. Those with anxious attachment increased in hostility with emotional distress. They began exhibiting aggressive and antagonistic traits when fighting with their partner. Folks with avoidant attachment withdrew and shut down when facing emotional distress. Only those with secure attachment utilized healthy coping and conflict resolution mechanisms under emotional distress. (Keep in mind that the conditions of this study weren’t factoring in sleep deprivation.) The American Journal of Family Therapy published another study which reaffirmed this. The results of the study showed attachment styles were the strongest predictors of conflict resolution techniques. The heightened reactivity and stress caused by lack of sleep (see above references to the amygdala) adds to the emotional distress which harms conflict resolution. It is better to sleep angry and re-address the issue the next day when all parties are less prone to acting on emotions.
All in all, psychological research reaffirms time and time again that the advice, “don’t go to bed angry,” should not be followed. Sleep deprivation has residual negative effects on our mood, logic, and communication skills. While there is one study frequently used in defense of the adage, this study’s population wasn’t representative, it didn’t account for many possible confounding variables, and it also assumes that remembering the negative feelings means having the same physiological reactions. That single study can be dismissed for now due to the overwhelming evidence that it is actually better to go to sleep angry. Don’t stay up fighting until the problem is resolved. Be respectful of one another. Approach the issue as a united front. Acknowledge that you will address the issue at a designated time, then go to bed!
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