Working Smarter

Wakeup Call: Bad Sleep Leads to Bad Mood and More Stress

Posted by Joe Robinson


Get only four hours of sleep, and you're not a happy camper the next day. Irritable. Cranky. People don’t want to be around you. You don't want to be around yourself.

Sleep, an endangered species in the glow of digital screens, is critical for so many things in our day, from physical vitality, to memory, to something that plays a major role in what we can get done and how well we get along with others: mood.


It turns out the quality of our sleep predicts the kind of mood we’ll be in that day. Poor sleep increases anger, anxiety, and nervousness (Watson, Clark, Tellegen) and inhibits positive emotions (Walker, Thurani). We’ve all seen it in action the day after a sleep-deprived night. The next morning you are upright under protest and the grump state follows you like a shadow.

You have become a prime exhibit of what’s known as negative affect, the display in your body language of negative emotions—irritability, impatience, testy. These are not winning qualities in the working world or anywhere. They cause conflict, time urgency, and drive stress. Impatience leads to irritability, which leads to anger, which leads to clogged arteries.

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On the other hand, when you get the quality sleep you need for real restoration of your faculties, the opposite occurs. You have more positive affect, an elixir that has been found to be key to goal-setting, innovation, problem-solving, rapport with others, and success.

As Sonja Lyubomirsky, Ed Diener, and Laura King put it in their fabulous study on positive affect, “Happy people are more successful, and their success is in large part a consequence of happiness and frequent PA (positive affect).”


Your brain is only 3% of your body weight, but it sucks up almost a quarter of your energy. That energy has to be replaced, and that happens when you sleep. Sleep is like charging your phone or electric car. It gives you the juice to operate. It restores needed glycogen, cleans up toxic junk like tao, and primes your mind to meet the challenges of the day. Sleep also shapes how you take on those tasks by coloring your mood.

There's just no comparison in daily effectiveness between a positive and negative attitude. Positive emotions broaden and build us, promoting initiative and receptivity, while negative emotions keep us in a reactive bunker. Which is going to do you more good during a day of demands and stressors pushing your buttons?

Positive emotions are an insurance policy against the vicissitudes of fate. When you have enough positive emotions in your mental bank, negative withdrawals don’t bring you down to zero or below, where self-reinforced pessimism can reign.

Another very important thing positive emotions do is help us see things with an optimistic lens. Research shows that optimism is the engine of resilience and not falling for the woe-is-me false apocalypse of pessimistic thinking.

We get a lot more done when we are in a good mood, less so when we’re feeling miserable and having attention split by perceived slights and crises.


Since sleep plays such a large role in determining which mood state we’re in, you could say it’s one of the most important productivity tools. There’s no app for it. We have to make that shuteye happen, or we’re not nearly as effective.

That’s hard for many today. Minds are tricked by the light of devices into thinking that it’s time to be awake. We eat late and have sugar and caffeine percolating in our veins. And, most often, we are at the mercy of stress, which is a massive stimulant telling the physiology that you can’t nap, because there’s imminent demise on the agenda.

Not surprisingly, insomnia is rampant these days. Some 75% of insomnia cases are the result of stress. Stress turns on the internal alert system, and it doesn't shut down when you’re sleeping.

When a threat is detected that overloads perceived coping ability, a hormone called CRH (corticoid-releasing hormone) flashes to the pituitary, where it activates ACTH (adrenocorticotropic hormone), which sets off a flood of adrenaline and cortisol, among other arousing agents, including the raw emotions of fear and anger that want to keep you awake lest your mortal end be met.


The activation mechanisms of stress make it hard to stay asleep. Fears keep intruding into a space meant for rest and maintenance. One woman I coached who had severe job stress had been getting only three hours of sleep a night. She was barely able to function at her job, a position that desperately needed the positive affect that comes from a good night’s sleep. She was a real estate agent. Uptight or grumpy agents—You wanna sell or not?—make few sales.

Stress sets off a cycle of rumination, circular thinking about a catastrophic thought that is generated by a belief in the ancient brain that you are doing to die. It comes out in the form of, I’m going to lose my job, or I can’t handle it, I’m a loser—bogus fantasies ginned up by obsessing about a false story set off by the caveman brain.

Your thinking at this moment is hostage to the irrational emotions of the primitive limbic system, the original brain that had the run of things before we developed the higher brain and prefrontal cortex that could weigh pro and con. We have to restore the 21st century brain and its rational thinking, something quality sleep helps us do.

My client and I took a closer look at the fears propelling her insomnia, held them up to the light of facts and evidence, and they crumbled. She was able to get back on a normal sleep cycle and got a promotion to boot. But when we started, her mood was high anxiety and fearful, a state that makes whatever job you have harder to do, because your intellect is undermined by anxiety and with it clear thinking.


Stress wrecks sleep in a number of ways. You sleep fewer hours, the sleep you do get is more shallow, with lots of bouts of waking up, and you get much less of the chief restorative phase of the sleep process. The real damage is done by a loss of what's known as "slow wave" sleep, which is the deep sleep that restores energy. 

It’s easy to see how we get crabby and easily ticked off when we aren’t getting quality sleep—at least seven to nine hours per night. Besides the role that stress plays in interrupting and reducing sleep time and quality, the lack of shuteye itself adds to stress levels in a vicious cycle.

“Poor sleep worsens the negative outcomes associated with stress by making us individually cognitively, emotionally, and physiologically more vulnerable to stressful events,” note Jessica Blaxton, Cindy Bergeman, Brenda Whitehead, Marcia Braun, and Jessica Payne, summarizing their study, “Relationships Among Nightly Sleep Quality, Daily Stress, and Daily Affect.”

The study found that sleep quality decreased the impact of daily stress on negative affect, but that midlife adults with more severe stress may need several nights of quality sleep to keep stress at bay. In other words, we need to make good sleep habits as automatic as brushing our teeth.

They also discovered that daily positive affect buffers the impact of daily stress, something University of North Carolina researcher Barbara Fredrickson calls the “undo effect.” Positive emotions can literally reverse the symptoms of stress. Blood pressure slows down, digestion starts up again. 

“An individual experiencing high amounts of positive affect was less affected by stress than an individual with low amounts of positive affect,” Blaxton and company conclude.

This mild-mannered, unremarkable-appearing thing called sleep is an amazing resource, a built-in stress management system, capable of turning around our attitude and the outcomes that result from it. It can buffer the calamitous, ruminative thoughts that set off the destructive consequences of fight-or-flight chemicals run amok.

And it can restore an asset we all had as kids but that goes AWOL amid disappointment and setbacks—the positive spirit written on our faces.

If you would like to inspire your team or organization with tools to manage stress, overwhelm, and burnout, click the button below to find out about my stress management and resiliency keynotes and employee trainings.

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Tags: positive affect, sleep and mood, mood and performance

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