Poor Sleep Quality Increases Mood Disturbances

Jaime L. Tartar PhD Behavioral Neuroscience Major Chair Division of Social and Behavioral Sciences Nova Southeastern University Fort Lauderdale, FloridaMedicalResearch.com Interview with:
Jaime L. Tartar PhD
Behavioral Neuroscience Major Chair
Division of Social and Behavioral Sciences
Nova Southeastern University
Fort Lauderdale, Florida

Medical Research: What is the background for this study? What are the main findings?

Dr. Tartar: We set out to understand how poor sleep quality can influence emotion processing. Our rationale for this study was that although sleep perturbations are known to impair cognitive performance, it is not currently clear how poor sleep alters emotion processes. However, given that poor sleep quality is closely associated with the development of mood disorders, it is important to understand how sleep quality affects emotional functioning. We specifically examined the possibility that poor sleep quality creates a cognitive bias in memory and interpretation for emotionally negative stimuli. This would result in maladaptive emotional experiences- for example, through enhanced memory for emotionally negative events (which is also a common characteristic of depression). The idea that negative cognitive bias occurs with poor sleep quality is also consistent with the finding that sleep loss increases sensitivity to emotional stimuli as well as increases undesirable mood states like irritability, anger, and hostility.  It is particularly noteworthy that sleep perturbations result in increased emotionality since sleep perturbations are shown to result in a decrease in non-emotional cognitive processes (attention and memory).  In order to clarify the role of sleep quality on emotion processing, we tested the relationship between sleep quality and a negative cognitive bias through the use of an emotional memory task.  We also aimed to contrast these findings with performance on a non-emotional attention task since sleep impairments have previously been shown to cause impairments in (non-emotional) sustained attention. An interesting feature of the study was that we also accounted for potential confounding effects of stress sensitivity and chronotype (ones preferred time of day) since these are both factors known to be related to sleep quality. We found that, compared to those who reported good subjective sleep quality, participants who reported poor subjective sleep quality showed a negative cognitive bias towards emotionally negative stimuli. Also in agreement with previous work, we show that poor sleep quality has a negative effect on affective symptom measures- poor sleep quality relates to increased depressive symptoms, greater state and trait anxiety, and higher total mood disturbance (increased tension, fatigue, confusion and less vigor). Consistent with previous findings, we also found that subjective sleep quality was related to a decrease in performance on a sustained attention task. Although previous research suggests that stress sensitivity and chronotype would be important variables to consider in the impact of sleep perturbations on emotion processing, we did not find any stress, chronotype, or time of testing effects on these measures.

Medical Research: What should clinicians and patients take away from your report?

Dr. Tartar: The take away message is that good sleep quality is vital for both emotional and non-emotional functioning. In particular, poor sleep quality is related to not only an increase in a negative cognitive bias in emotion processing, but also poor affective symptomatology outcomes (increased depressive symptoms, state and trait anxiety, total mood disturbances, tension, confusion, fatigue, and less vigor). A decrease in affective processing abilities is particularly problematic for medical professionals and patients who often suffer from reduced or poor quality sleep, but need to retain the ability to appropriately process and respond to emotionally-laden information and stimuli. Aside from these affect-related changes, it is also essential for clinicians and patients to recognize that there is a deficit in sustained attention to non-emotional stimuli with poor sleep quality which can adversely impact decision making and mental fluency- cognitive elements that are critical to both doctors and patients. These impairments in sustained attention to non-emotional stimuli can impact a wide range of activities, from driving to work related tasks. The nature of longer durations of work hours for many jobs, including emergency room physicians, or for jobs that require greater sustained attention, such as air traffic controllers, puts them at a greater risk for problems from poor sleep quality. As such, it is important to consider the implications of decreases in sustained attention, increases in negative cognitive bias, and poor affective symptomatology for individuals’ performance on the job. Additionally, clinicians should be aware that decrements in sustained attention that occur in a variety of psychological disorders, including depression, may be a result of poor sleep quality rather than a direct symptom of the disorder.

Medical Research: What recommendations do you have for future research as a result of this study?

Dr. Tartar: The effect of sleep impairments on emotion processing is an area that is grossly under investigated- even though emotional blunting can be detrimental to proper daytime functioning.  Future research should aim to understand how different aspects of sleep hygiene (sleep deprivation vs. sleep quality vs. sleep duration etc..) uniquely, and in combination, affect various aspects of emotional and non-emotional cognitive processing.  It is our expectation that each of these findings will contribute a missing, fundamental element to existing knowledge of how poor sleep health influences specific mental processing capabilities and leads to the development of mood disorders. Future work can also aim to understand how specific psychological health factors mediate the ability to maintain emotion processing with sleep loss.


Gobin, C. M., Banks, J. B., Fins, A. I. and Tartar, J. L. (2015), Poor sleep quality is associated with a negative cognitive bias and decreased sustained attention. Journal of Sleep Research. doi: 10.1111/jsr.12302

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MedicalResearch.com Interview with: Jaime L. Tartar PhD (2015). Poor Sleep Quality Increases Mood Disturbances MedicalResearch.com

Last Updated on May 1, 2015 by Marie Benz MD FAAD