Study shows that stress without sleep leads to a downward spiral

Crystal Park, a psychology professor at UConn, co-authored a study that states stress without sleep could send someone into a downward spiral. (File photo/The Daily Campus)

A study co-authored by a University of Connecticut professor found that constant stress without proper sleep and self-control could send a person into a downwards spiral.

Self-control is the ability for a person to manage their thoughts, emotions, impulses and behaviors in order to stay focus, according to the article co-written by UConn psychology professor Crystal Park.

Self-control is a limited resource, Park said. Whenever a person uses her self-control to deal with some kind of stress or challenge, she has less self-control available for the rest of the day, according to the article. This makes stressful events harder to deal with as the day progresses, Park said.

“Whenever people are tired, and try to resist temptation or [face] other things that seem to tax their regulatory abilities, they have less [self-control] for the next thing coming,” Park said.

Park said she wanted to see if people who were more stressed had less self-control to handle such stress and if people with less self-control handled stress worse, or both.

Laboratory studies have shown that self-control does weaken whenever someone uses it, according to the article.

Yet very few real-world studies have been run in order to test this theory out, according to the article.

For example, it has been found that when recently married people faced a lot of stress, their self-control worsens. According to the article, this leads to more negativity within the marriage and an overall negative view of the marriage.

Another study found that college students drank more alcohol and were more likely to binge drink on days when they had a lot of stress and their self-control was drained, according to the study.

Park, however, was interested in seeing how daily stress related to self-control, Park said.

Over the course of 14 days, 1,442 participants were sent two short surveys via text, 15–20 questions each, every day, at random times, according to the study.

Some questions asked if the participant experienced a stressful event recently, like getting into an argument, being treated badly, getting ill or hurt, losing somebody, experiencing job problems or experiencing financial issues, according to the article.

Other questions focused on the participant’s state of self-control, asking if a participant was experiencing less energy than usual or if things that normally aren’t a bother are becoming one, according to the article.

Results showed that both stressful events predicted subsequent drops in self-control and drops in self-control predicted later occurrences of more stressful events, according to the article.  

This means that stressful events and hits to self-control interact regularly, which could lead to a downward spiral into perpetual stress.

Sleep, however, was found to be a saving grace.

Results found that after sleep, a person’s self-control may be re-energized, but the number of stressors she would face after every hit to her self-control would not change, according to the article.

“Just because you had a bad day yesterday does not mean you will end up with that same cycle because you get a reset button, which is your sleep,” Park said.

The results suggests that while stressful events and loss of self-control can lead to a negative spiral, sleep keeps this from happening by resetting a person’s self-control.

Park said she was happy to see the established academic theory and laboratory results had been supported by real-world data.

“I love the laboratory settings because [the experiments] are so clever and controlled and you can have nice two group comparisons,” Park said. “But as a clinical psychologist, I like to see what happens in the real world.”

The article does not provide a solution for the spiral, however. Although sleep is assumed to be the reason why people’s self-control resets everyday, other possibilities, such as environment factors, relationships and good coping skills like taking breaks and having enjoyable experiences, are not as well explored, according to the article.

Sleep is also a luxury some people, like students, cannot at times afford.

“As a professor I see [the stressor-and-self-control-depletion spiral] a lot,” Park said. “When students get knocked off their square a little bit, they get stressed out, and a bunch of things start piling up, and they create more problems for themselves by not dealing with them.”

Park recommends that students preparing for finals week should rest, sleep and take care of themselves in order to keep themselves from falling into the stress spiral, Park said.

These tips are only for the short term, however, Park said.

For the long term, Park said that people should practice ways at being better at self-control and not be so distracted.

“The whole point of self-control is to override the easiest responses,” Park said. “It is about training yourself to do things that aren’t so easy.”

Park said that anyone can increase their self-control if they set limits for themselves and stick to it.

“For the long-term,” Park said, “I think that for college students, having some kind of practice that give them more discipline, whether it’s martial arts or yoga…[will help] build self-regulatory capacities. [Research] suggests that you will be a lot happier and better off if that is what you do, with a more stress-free life.”

Park not only recommends that college students build up their self-control not just for school, but for the rest of their lives, Park said.

“I think it is important to recognize that boosting self-regulatory abilities, self-control and self-regulation is very important because [stress] plays out in daily life,” Park said. “[Stress] renders people more vulnerable to stressors…  [and the] more stressors you have, the worse you feel, and that is going to impair your self-regulatory abilities even more.”


Dario Cabrera is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at dario.cabrera@uconn.edu.