Why You’re More Emotional When You’re Tired

The amygdala is a small, almond-shaped collection of neurons located inside the temporal lobe in the brain. An important part of the limbic system, it forms the core of our neural system and is responsible for processing fearful and threatening stimuli and appropriating a response to them. Damage to the amygdala can be caused by various conditions, including neurological injuries but something as innocuous-seeming as a lack of sleep can also have big consequences to its health and condition.

When you miss out on good quality, regular sleep, a deficit occurs between the amygdala and the ventral anterior cingulate cortex (vACC), the area in the brain responsible for several cognitive functions, including emotional expression, attention allocation and mood regulation. That deficit can have a huge impact as the vACC is unable to regulate activity in the amygdala, making it as much as 60% more reactive to negative stimuli; in other words, making everything feel more heightened and triggering feelings of emotional instability. An amygdala hijack is a phrase coined to describe this automatic emotional overreaction to a stress trigger. When it happens, you’ll feel its effects physically as well as mentally and may experience symptoms such as a faster heart rate, shaking, sweating and goosebumps on your skin.

In order to help regulate the amygdala, good sleep every night is essential. Prioritise deep and restorative sleep and try to stick to healthy sleep habits that will make this easier to achieve. Reducing the amount of tech you use before bed is a key part of this, as tech can interfere with the amount of necessary REM sleep you get. REM is the restorative kind of sleep that we all need for good brain maintenance and function. Without it we can experience mood alterations caused by the amygdala's response. As well as paying attention to sleep, there are other ways to tackle an amygdala hijack and help improve your response over time. Here are just a few:

Consider your triggers

If you frequently find yourself in the midst of an emotional overreaction, it can be useful to try and identify the things that tip you over into that state. Recognising your triggers and acknowledging any warning signs beforehand should help you handle the stress that leads to the response more easily next time.

Reframe your response

When you’re in the moment of an amygdala hijack it can be impossible to address but it’s important you try and reframe it once the intensity has passed, in order to try and better prepare yourself to deal with it next time it happens. Reminding yourself that it’s an automatic response and not a logical one can help, as can thinking about what might have been a better way to respond to the trigger, given the choice.

Slow down and refocus

When you feel yourself becoming more emotional, stop, slow down and take ten deep breaths. Refocusing your thoughts on your breath allows for your brain’s frontal lobes to take over from the amygdala which may be acting irrationally.