Sleep and Personal Connection: How We Feel About Others Is Related to How Well We Sleep
When we don’t get enough sleep, we’re less inhibited. Our metaphorical filters malfunction, and we don’t have the same level of compassion and empathy for others as compared to when we have slept well.
Poor sleep is related to how we talk with others, how we feel about them, and how we connect with them. The way that we sleep can impact our relationships, including romantic, professional, and platonic friendships. Below, we’ll discuss some of the ways that our sleep may be related to our perspectives of others.
Can you empathize with other people?
Empathy is one of my favorite concepts. There are two types of empathy that we will discuss here, cognitive empathy and emotional empathy. First, cognitive empathy is about being able to imagine someone else’s position. It is mentally “putting yourself in some else’s shoes.”
Emotional empathy goes deeper than being able to conceptually grasp how someone else is feeling — it is feeling the same emotions that the person feels. For example, if you find yourself crying during the sad movie scenes, you may have high emotional empathy. However, empathetic responses change based on how well we sleep.
One study found that people who were sleep deprived demonstrated lower empathy than people who were well rested. Specifically, the researchers showed the participants images of faces and asked questions about each image. They asked if they felt (1) strong emotion to the image and (2) calm or aroused, and (3) if the image was neutral, positive, or negative. The results revealed that people who were sleep deprived, compared to those who slept normally, demonstrated lower ability to feel similar emotions as the facial images that they were shown.
The researchers conducted a similar study in paramedics. Paramedics with at least three years of experience reported poorer sleep quality than paramedics in training and people who were not paramedics. Not surprisingly, the experienced paramedics demonstrated lower empathy for images of facial expressions than the other two groups. Together, these findings suggest that both sleep deprivation (i.e., not getting enough sleep) and poor sleep quality may be linked with low cognitive empathy, or the ability to understand what others are feeling.
Does better sleep mean better romance?
An important aspect of healthy romantic relationships is being able to resolve conflict. Interestingly, a study found that when both partners sleep well, they are more likely to resolve an issue than if one or both partners slept poorly.
The researchers conducted two studies. In the the first study they assessed self-reported sleep problems and relationship conflict. The participants logged their sleep problems and relationship conflicts for two weeks. People who reported sleeping worse over the two week period, including more difficulty falling asleep and staying asleep throughout the night, reported more relationship conflict than those who slept well. Interestingly, when people reported poorer sleep than their typical night of sleep, they also reported higher relationship conflict. For example, if a person slept poorly on average, if she slept even more poorly on a given night, she reported more relationship conflict the following day.
In the second study, the researchers invited people to the laboratory and measured their sleep quality with questionnaires. They asked heterosexual couples to discuss an issue in their relationship and try to resolve it within five minutes. When both partners slept well, they were more likely to resolve the issue than when both partners slept poorly or if one partner slept well and one slept poorly.
Most interestingly, when both partners slept well, they showed the highest empathic accuracy, or cognitive empathy. In other words, they were better able to understand each other’s emotions. The researchers measured this understanding using questionnaires. Each partner rated how much they identified with a list of emotions during conflict resolution. Partners who slept well had better matches between the way that their partners rated their emotions and their emotion ratings for their partners.
Moreover, even partners who slept well had difficulty decoding their partner’s emotions when the other partner did not sleep well. The authors suggest that poor sleep may impact emotional expression, making it difficult to “read” how a person is feeling.
Taken together, when all people involved in a relationship sleep well, they may be better equipped to resolve conflict and demonstrate higher cognitive empathy than when they do not sleep well. For healthy romantic relationships, everyone involved in the romance should aim for healthy sleep.
Is your sleep affecting your social relationships?
As we see above, some sleep research supports that when we sleep poorly, we don’t connect well with other people. You may have noticed this disconnect in your personal life. You’ve probably heard (or have been the one saying) “sorry, I’m tired.” When we don’t understand and empathize with others, we might be more impatient, snarky, and combative. We should be attentive to, mindful of, and patient with others, and perhaps with extra effort when we haven’t slept well.
The Romance of Sleep/Wake Schedules, The Research Life.
We often consider a defined set of criteria when vetting potential romantic partners. We evaluate their character and…
- The opinions expressed in this article are my own and do not serve as a proxy for medical advice. If you are consistently having trouble with your sleep, I suggest that you consult a trusted medical professional.
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