Professor of the Practice of Law University of Denver Sturm College of Law

Sleep Deprivation & Rumination

A major impact of the pandemic is ambiguity, caused by our inability to predict or control many aspects of our socially distanced lives.  Ambiguity activates the parts of our brain crucial to anxiety and loathing.  Ambiguity can cause rampant rumination, as the brain is unable to rely on executive function and decision-making.  This can result in a spiral of negative thinking, and a sense of helplessness can lead to depression.

Sleep deprivation impairs our capacity to avoid or reign in negative thinking. 

Sixty participants were shown a series of adverse (scenes of war) and neutral (city buildings) photographs.  After half had a restful night of sleep, and the other half were sleep-deprived, they were challenged to suppress their thoughts related to the emotionally negative and neutral scenes.  

Participants suffered from an increase in unwanted or unpleasant thoughts by nearly 50% when sleep deprived as compared to well rested.  The well-rested group viewed negative images more positively and demonstrated a reduced sweat response.

Lack of sleep can cause intrusive thoughts to be triggered more often and to linger for longer periods of time. 

Takeaway:  Even during pandemic uncertainty, getting sufficient sleep can help limit runaway negative thinking.


Robert Sapolsky, Why our Brains are Having so much Trouble with COVID-19,, Aug. 22, 2020,

University of York, The Role of Sleep Deprivation in Unwanted Thoughts, Neuroscience News, Oct 20, 2020,

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