Sleeping less may help those at high risk for depression

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A psychology researcher has found preliminary evidence that poor sleep can actually reduce the risk of depressive symptoms in some people. His findings have been published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

“My research is focused on answering the following question — given the same negative life event, why is it that one person becomes depressed and another person does not?” said study author Gerald J. Haeffel of the University of Notre Dame.

“According to the cognitive theories of depression, the answer lies in how the person interprets the negative life event. There are some people who have a ‘cognitive vulnerability.’ This is a jargon term meaning that there are some people who have a tendency generate negative thoughts about themselves and their future after experiencing negative life events.”

“This tendency (i.e., a cognitive vulnerability) seems to be a trait-like risk factor that is difficult to change,” he remarked. “The purpose of the study was to try a novel sleep-restriction strategy for helping those with cognitive vulnerability.”

“Unlike other interventions that aim at changing a person’s trait-like vulnerability, we attempted to deal with the consequences of having the vulnerability (by preventing the consolidation of negative thoughts during sleep).”

The study found that poor sleep reduced the risk of depressive symptoms during times of stress among those with a high level of cognitive vulnerability — but not among those with a low level.

The findings were based on three studies.

Haeffel conducted an initial study of 134 college students in which he surveyed the participants about their cognitive vulnerability, sleep, stressful life events, and depressive symptoms over 4 weeks.

In a second study, the researcher had 47 college students wear an actigraph device to measure their sleep, instead of relying on self reports. A third study employed an experiment design, where 40 cognitively vulnerable participants were randomly assigned to a 14-day sleep restriction intervention or a control condition.

“The study suggests that less sleep may help those at high cognitive risk for depression,” Haeffel explained to PsyPost. “The hypothesis is that less sleep prevents the consolidation of the negative thoughts generated by the high-risk individuals.”

But the results of the study should be seen as a proof of concept rather than an proven path of treatment for clinical depression.

“The average person needs to realize that the results likely do not apply to them. We do not advocate getting less sleep for the vast majority of people,” Haeffel said.

“Sleep is critical for healthy physical and mental functioning. The benefits of sleep restriction was specific to those who had high levels of cognitive vulnerability and only during times of high stress. ”

“Future research is needed to replicate these results and also to more fully understand why less sleep was beneficial for this group, Haeffel explained. “It is important to determine if less sleep is preventing the consolidation of negative cognitions or if it is working for another reason (e.g., reducing REM sleep).

“Similarly, more research is needed to determine the optimal amount of sleep restriction for preventing depression in this at-risk group of individuals.”

“If you or someone you know is suffering from depression, please seek help,” Haeffel added. “There are a number of empirically supported treatments for depression including cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and SSRI medications. It is important to highlight that CBT is as effective as medication and also has a prophylactic effect (meaning it makes you less likely to relapse in the future).”

The study was titled: “Don’t sleep on it: Less sleep reduces risk for depressive symptoms in cognitively vulnerable undergraduates“.