Pre-Existing Sleeping Patterns and Their Effect on Stress Development
Can sleeping patterns predict stress development? Studies over the years have shown a link between a particular sleep stage, Rapid-eye-Movement (REM) sleep, and the processing of emotional experiences, particularly stressful experiences. In lab studies, REM sleep deprivation and fragmentation have been associated with increased emotional reactivity and stress response. The effects of sleep on stress are also evident in natural day-to-day settings. Among college students, sleep deprivation and poor-quality sleep have been associated with increased stress, particularly academic stress, and lower academic performance. However, there is a lack of research into how students' sleep architecture (the time spent in particular sleep stages like REM sleep) affects stress development. In this study, we aimed to investigate whether habitual sleep, particularly REM sleep, can predict the development of stress symptoms following exposure to stressful events, such as final examinations. Forty-nine participants measured their sleep for a week at the beginning of the academic semester and then completed self-evaluations, measuring test anxiety and other relevant factors. They completed the same evaluations again just prior to final exams near the end of the semester. Our findings suggest that REM sleep was the most dominant factor predicting the change in participants' test anxiety. Contrasting with our predictions, REM sleep was associated with an increase rather than decrease in anxiety. We discuss these results in terms of the REM Recalibration Hypothesis, which suggests REM sleep reduces activity in fear-encoding areas in the brain, leading to decreased sensitivity and increased selectivity of stress responses.