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Emotional Disorders linked to Sleep Deficiency in Children

The most common responses to how lack of sleep affects emotions are fogginess, irritability, and grumpiness.  There are hundreds of jokes that are rooted in how sleep deprivation can turn a nice kid into something from a bad horror flick, but lack of sleep can actually lead to a great deal of serious health consequences for them in later years.

A clinical psychologist and associate professor of psychology at the University of Houston, Candice Alfano, reminds us that children who are not getting quality sleep are more likely to suffer from anxiety and depression disorders in later years.  A new study funded by a grant from the National Institute of Mental Health, a subsidiary of NIH, was looking to see the different ways lack of sleep in children leads to increased risk of developing emotional disorders as they grow up.

Ms. Alfano is the principal investigator of the study, which was done at the Sleep and Anxiety Center of Houston (SACH).  She states that the main priority of this study is to understand how children who have had adequate and inadequate amounts of sleep evaluate, regulate, and later recall emotional experiences.  Childhood ages were focused on for this study because sleep patterns, along with emotional problems like anxiety and depression, develop in early years.

Alfano and colleagues are looking to identify emotional processes that make the children more vulnerable to anxiety and depression when there is a lack of good quality sleep.  To gauge this accurately, they temporarily restricted the sleep in 50 children between 7 and 11 years.  This will help them pinpoint behavioral, physiological, and cognitive patterns of emotional risk.

Findings were clear:  Lack of sleep or disruption in sleep negatively impacts emotional health in children by creating negative emotions, as well as altering positive experiences and recalls.  For instance, children experienced less pleasure from positive things after only two nights of poor sleep.  Additionally, they were less likely to recall positive details about the experiences later in the study and were less reactive to them.  These emotional disconnections are less apparent when sleep habits are more normalized and adequate in duration.

We know that healthy sleep patterns are critical for the overall well-being of children; however, this study shows us that lack of sleep not only creates negative behaviors, but impacts their ability to experience pleasurable activities.  Getting inadequate sleep on a continual basis does lead to anxiety, depression, and many other types of emotional imbalances.  Therefore, it is vital that parents think about developing a healthy sleep routine and consider it an essential component of keeping their children healthy, just as they do with dental hygiene, exercise, and nutrition.

Bottom line is that if your child is having difficulty waking up in the morning or feeling excessively sleepy during the day, then their bedtime routine should be adjusted.  This can be caused by several factors like later bedtimes, unrestful sleep throughout the night, or an inconsistent schedule or sleep environment.

Childhood is when emotional regulation and sleep patterns are developing, so Alfano and her colleagues have made it a point to study the link between sleep problems and impaired emotional processing more closely.  Understanding the association between need for good quality sleep and better brain plasticity could be a critical window of opportunity for early psychological intervention.  The combined cost of depressive and anxiety disorders on society and the economy is an estimated $120 billion yearly, which is a clear indication that there needs to be more diligent attention to identifying and treating risk factors and developing more effective intervention methods.

Another article by Alfano and colleagues, published in Sleep Medicine Reviews, pays particular attention to the medical and scientific nomenclature of emotion and sleep regulation.  This article provides evidence that inadequate sleep leads to poor responses to positive or rewarding experiences, especially if they require effort.  They say that over time, these changes in behavior lead to increased risk for depression and poor quality of life.

It seems that there are several processes that are affected by poor sleep, including the ability to pick up on nonverbal cues, self-monitor, and experience empathy, Alfano noted.  Combined with decreased impulse control, one of the more notable highlights of adolescence, and inadequate sleep creates a perfect storm for negative emotional responses.

Reference:  http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2016-07/aaos-pod071516.php

Author: Rachael Herman is a professional writer with an extensive background in medical writing, research, and language development. Her hobbies include hiking in the Rockies, cooking, and reading.

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