Anger Management and Sleep

Everyone feels angry sometimes. Despite anger being a normal, healthy emotion, the way we feel or express it can cause problems for us or the people around us. An estimated 7.8% of Americans struggle with anger management, particularly men and young adults.

Anger and poor sleep have a reciprocal relationship. Ongoing research has discovered a complicated connection which can, over time, become a vicious cycle. Sleep problems can lead to anger, which then makes sleep even more difficult.

In this article, we will explore and explain the science of anger and sleep, as well as the best techniques for reducing your anger levels and getting a good night’s rest.

What is anger and how can it affect people?

Anger is a healthy emotion. However, how often we feel it and how we react to it vary widely. This is the gap which can lead to anger management problems, which occur when we have an unhealthy response to anger and lack control over the feeling.

Emotions have both a mental and a physical component. Mentally, we often feel as though we are angry because of something happening to us or in the world. Instead, experts advise that anger is instead caused by our reaction to and interpretation of our circumstances, rather than the circumstances themselves.

Anger can cause or be caused by physical effects. During episodes of anger, our natural “fight, freeze, or flight” response may cause a pounding heart, tense muscles, and raised blood pressure.

The body also releases stress hormones and chemicals, which over time can lead to a wide range of health issues known to be associated with anger management problems. These include:

The last item on the list is of particular interest as we explore the connection between anger management and sleep.

How Sleep Loss Can Affect Anger Management

Not only can uncontrolled anger management problems cause insomnia, but sleep loss itself can cause or worsen incidences of anger.

Bidirectionality of Sleep and Anger

Sleep and emotions have a bidirectional relationship: how we sleep effects our mood, and our mood effects how well we are able to sleep.

Sleep dysfunction has an impact on all emotional states, but anger appears to be unique. The hormones which are released during sleep, the way our brain functioning slows with sleep loss, and our general mood when we don’t sleep enough all work together to create frustration and anger.

It’s also possible for sleep loss to aggravate pre-existing mental conditions. While mental illnesses aren’t always associated with anger management issues, they can still be a factor worth exploring.

Sleep Loss, Mood, and Self-Control

Sleep deprivation has an negative effect on our overall mood. When people don’t sleep as long as they need to (seven hours is the usual suggestion for adults), they have a tendency to feel sad, stressed, exhausted, and angry.

However, research has shown that anger is uniquely affected by sleep loss. Subjects who had not slept enough grew angrier and more distressed with uncomfortable and irritating situations over time. Control groups, in comparison, grew less irritated and more used to the situations.

Merely feeling anger is only one way sleep loss can disrupt our emotional control. When we are exhausted, it is also more difficult to regulate how much anger we feel in response to a small problem. We feel hyper-aware of danger and less able to make decisions, which then leads to feeling threatened. As the anger grows, we become more likely to blame others and less able to use coping mechanisms for our emotions.

The latter point is particularly important when considering treatment, as healthy coping mechanisms are a significant part of anger management therapy.

One potential reason for the impact of sleep on our mood is that sleep loss disrupts normal brain functioning and our ability to control our negative emotions subconsciously.

The amygdala, an almond-shaped bundle of neurons, is associated with feeling and controlling fear, pleasure, and aggression. In one study, subjects with sleep loss showed 60% more amygdala response to negative stimuli when compared to a control group. There was also less of a connection between the amygdala and the prefrontal cortex, which influences self-control and our inhibitions.

These findings indicate that sleep loss might make anger management more difficult by influencing both aspects: both the feeling of anger itself and our ability to control it.

Sleep Loss and Social Skills

Control over our emotions is a crucial part of interacting with other people, so it comes as no surprise that sleep loss can also influence anger by breaking down our social skills.

Sleep-deprived people have higher levels of a substance called adenosine. When our adenosine levels are high, brain cells are less likely to communicate correctly. This makes us feel “sleepy”, but it also makes us less aware of the outside world. Sleep loss also triggers our bodies to make less of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine, slowing brain cell communication even more.

Together with the effect of sleep loss on the amygdala and prefrontal cortex, we are both less likely to fully understand social situations and more likely to act on outsized feelings of anger rather than a nuanced understanding of the situation.

Other studies have shown examples of this toxic combination in practice. Sleep-deprived people:

  • Have poor decision making skills
  • Struggle with moral judgment
  • Relate badly to other people
  • Are impulsive
  • React negatively to frustrating situations
  • Are more likely to stereotype
  • Feel rejected more often

For people who have anger management concerns to begin with, it is easy to see how sleep loss can have a dramatic impact on how they express themselves.

Reduced Empathy, Increased Loneliness

Another potential cause of poor social skills among the sleep-deprived is the reduction in empathy sleep loss can cause.

Empathy is the ability to understand and feel the emotions and circumstances of other people. When researchers measured both physical and mental empathic reactions, they found subjects who had not slept the night before had scores significantly lower than other groups in the study.

As lowered empathy is associated with both anger management issues and poor social skills, these studies shed further light on why sleep loss can both cause and aggravate problems with anger.

Like other aspects of the sleep-anger connection, the loss of empathy can also become a cycle which is difficult to escape. Sleep deprivation makes people less comfortable in the presence of strangers and more likely to avoid social situations. This leads to loneliness, which can cause further problems with social skills and a related increase in feelings of anger. Mental health problems are also aggravated by loneliness.

Sleep Loss and Mental Health

It is possible to have problems with anger management without also having an underlying mental disorder. However, anger issues are sometimes caused or aggravated by mental health concerns. Five disorders in particular as associated with extreme anger:

  • Intermittent Explosive Disorder
  • Oppositional Defiant Disorder
  • Disruptive Mood Dysregulation Disorder
  • Borderline Personality Disorder
  • Bipolar Disorder

While not considered a symptom of other mental disorders, anger management can also be impacted by mood or anxiety disorders like depression and anxiety.

Sleep dysfunction is known to predict mental health problems. It also aggravates pre-existing psychiatric disorders, worsening their symptoms and prolonging negative effects. While this is most widely known in the case of mood disorders and anxiety disorders, it is also true for conditions like bipolar disorder and borderline personality disorder.

For people with mental health disorders which affect their anger management, quality sleep may be a key to unlocking more effective treatment.

How Anger Makes it Harder to Sleep

As previously discussed, anger and sleep have a reciprocal relationship. Just as sleep impacts anger, anger can then make it more difficult to sleep well. Evidence shows that people with an “angry disposition” are more likely to experience sleep dysfunction even as children. This continues into adulthood, when angry individuals find it more difficult to both fall asleep and stay asleep.

Anger can also have a dramatic effect on the ability of the people around us to sleep properly. In this section, we will examine both the personal and interpersonal effects of anger on sleep.

Mental and Physical Arousal

When we are angry, we become both physiologically and cognitively aroused. This has a direct effect on sleep, which requires us to be both physically and mentally calm in order to fall and stay asleep.

People who have problems with anger management are more likely to fixate on the circumstances they feel are causing their anger. They are also less likely to be able to control and regulate the emotions which arise from these ruminations, causing a double hit to their mental state.

If an individual has both anger issues and a mental health disorder, this effect is even more pronounced. The arousals associated with mental disorders are known to cause changes to sleep architecture, making insomnia more likely and sleep less restorative. In addition, the intrusive thoughts caused by some mental illnesses can provoke or be provoked by anger and are associated with insomnia.

The physical effects of anger — changes in blood pressure, a racing heart, faster breathing, sweating, and hyper-awareness of your body — are also in direct opposition to how we fall asleep. When we fall asleep, our:

  • Heart rate and blood pressure levels lower
  • Breathing deepens and becomes more regular
  • Body temperature drops
  • Physical processes slow

Even for individuals without an angry temperament, disrupting this process with arousal is associated with insomnia. Some find it difficult to fall asleep (sleep onset insomnia) while others struggle to remain asleep (sleep-maintenance insomnia).

Self-Control

Some researchers have speculated that anger’s most harmful effects, including sleep dysfunction, can be attributed to a lack of control over anger.

They have found that people with more control over their anger are more likely to use healthy coping strategies based around reappraising their situation rather than simply reacting to it. In turn, these coping mechanisms reduce stress markers and are associated with better health and high-quality sleep.

This hypothesis was supported by their finding that people with better control over their anger reported better sleep than their less-controlled peers. This was true of both subjective and objective sleep measurements: not only did they sleep for longer, but they also felt less sleepy and more refreshed.

It is possible that these results are a reflection of self-control in general (poor self-control is linked to having worse sleep hygiene) rather than anger control in particular. However, the research still supports the focus on self-control in anger management therapy.

Anger, Sleep, and Other People

We are not the only people impacted by our anger. Just as our anger can make it difficult for us to sleep, the ways we choose to respond to anger can also cause sleep problems in other people.

Bullying and domestic abuse are known to be about control, rather than anger. However, this doesn’t mean that they aren’t correlated with angry temperaments. Bullying is associated with “externalizing” feelings of anger and aggression, while people with greater feelings of anger are more likely to commit domestic abuse.

In turn, experiencing bullying or traumatic events like domestic abuse can cause insomnia and other sleep disturbances. This is particularly true when these experiences then lead to post-traumatic stress disorder, as the symptoms of PTSD (including sleep dysfunction) can grow stronger over time unless treated.

Of course, expressions of anger don’t have to reach the level of bullying or abuse to cause stress, anxiety, and unhappiness in the people we interact with. This effect is particularly striking in marriages and families. People in healthy relationships are 36% less likely to have insomnia than their unhappy counterparts, while “hostile” marriages are associated with sleep problems in young children.

These studies show the importance treating anger management problems has for both people who commit and are on the receiving end of bullying or abuse.

Sleeping Better with Anger Issues

The best way to sleep better varies widely from person to person. However, there are some techniques, routines, and lifestyle changes which work well for most people. By beginning with these general concepts and adapting them to your life and needs, it’s possible to improve your sleep health and potentially help manage your anger.

Whether or not you think you have a sleep disorder, consider speaking to your doctor or care team before improving your sleep. Not only will they be able to offer specialized advice, but they will also be given greater insight into how your sleep interacts with other aspects of your health.

Counseling and Therapy

Many options are available when seeking out treatment for anger management, but the most regularly recommended is some form of therapy. Seeking out counseling is one of the best steps you can take in controlling your anger and improving your sleep health. There are many ways to access therapy, all of them effective: group therapy, one-on-one meetings, online classes, and other modalities are all worth looking into.

In counseling, you will learn skills to cope with your anger and calm yourself, improve your relationships, and understand your actions. Mindfulness-based therapy (see below) and cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) are considered the gold standard and focus on controlling your thoughts and actions, rather than traditional “talk” therapy.

Speak to your doctor or care team about finding licensed therapy in your area. They will be able to guide you towards the best options and will have more information about what type of counseling might suit you best.

Yoga, Meditation, and Mindfulness

Relaxation techniques — such as yoga, meditation, and mindfulness — have been proven to have a positive impact on both anger management concerns and sleep dysfunction.

In one study, a single yoga class was offered to patients at a psychiatric hospital. Researchers found that feelings of tension, anger, hostility, and fatigue were significantly lower after the class. Another study, which measured verbal aggressiveness, found that a group of people who completed a yoga program were significantly less verbally aggressive than they had been before the program.

Subjects who were taught meditation techniques were better able to feel emotions without reacting to them, a key concept in anger management. When given the chance to commit revenge on someone who had angered them, the meditators were far less likely to take the opportunity despite being just as angry as the control group.

As mentioned, these skills are of particular interest in anger management as they also promote healthy, high-quality sleep. Fifty-five percent of people who do yoga find it helps them fall asleep, while over 85% report stress relief from the practice. Yoga is also a positive, peaceful way to reduce the physical and mental arousal caused by stress and anger.

Meditation, particularly mindfulness meditation, is also associated with sleeping well. One study found significant improvements in people who were part of a group studying mindfulness, including reduced rates of insomnia, depression, and fatigue.

Sleep Hygiene

“Sleep hygiene” is the term used to describe the habits, routines, and rituals which impact your sleep.

Having good sleep hygiene begins with going to bed at the same time every night and giving yourself enough time to fall asleep, sleep well, and wake up without too much stress. Here is some crucial advice for improving your sleep hygiene and sleep health:

  • Protect your circadian rhythm by limiting your exposure to the blue light emitted by electronic screens. As this light is particularly harmful at night, consider limiting your screen time or using blue-light filtering glasses.
  • Morning or afternoon exercise, particularly light aerobic and weight-training routines, can promote healthy sleep.
  • Consider giving your bedroom a mini makeover to create the perfect place to sleep. Avoid excess light by removing electronics or installing blackout curtains, make sure it’s the right temperature, and consider using a white noise machine at night if ambient noise disturbs your rest.
  • Bedrooms are best reserved for sleeping and sex. If you use your bedroom for other purposes (as an office, or where you watch TV), consider rearranging your home so that your bedroom is distraction-free.
  • Create a routine you can easily repeat every night. Avoid electronics while embracing activities which calm you and set you up for sleep.

Conclusion

Although everyone feels angry at times, not everyone has a problem managing their anger. For those who do, ensuring a good night’s rest may play a role in helping them make anger a more productive part of their lives. Breaking the cyclic relationship between anger and sleep loss may take time, but it’s well worth the results.

We hope this article has helped shed light on anger, sleep, and the science of why they have such profound effects on each other. Treatment is available for both anger management and sleep disorders. By speaking to your care team and implementing techniques to sleep better, it’s possible to move forward with your life.

Additional Resources

Sleep affects our state of mind every day. To read about sleep’s relationship with mental health and learn more about how to get a good night of sleep, follow the links below: