Social Rejection & Sleep

Is there a connection?

Humans are social creatures, yet the research on how sleep is related to many social processes has been largely unexplored. Social rejection seemed like an easy one to investigate because interpersonal stressors—like social rejection—have routinely been associated with sleep disturbance and insomnia. We also know about the development of psychiatric conditions where poor sleep is common, such as depression and anxiety disorders. Perceived social rejection—or one in which the participant imagines or builds up the interaction in one’s mind—is also a driver of loneliness, which many have already found to correlate with poor sleep.

The data suggest a bidirectional, or two-way, relationship between sleep and social rejection. For example, we find that when we experimentally manipulate the experience of social rejection prior to bedtime, such as making participants feel left out or more explicitly exposing them to negative feedback, those individuals have a hard time getting to sleep, get less sleep overall, and in some cases show more fragmented sleep (see Gordon et al., 2019). This is particularly true among individuals who are already prone to ruminate when bad things happen. It also seems to work the other way around. Several studies have found that poor sleepers may react more strongly when faced with social rejection, both emotionally and physiologically. This shows us examples of how social rejection and sleep can go hand in hand.

The importance of social distancing during this pandemic cannot be overstated; however, reports of depression and insomnia are rising. Social distancing may rob many of us of the supports we need to cope with the barrage of stressors we face on a day-to-day basis. Social slights may sting more than usual, which can lead to feelings of loneliness that negatively impact our sleep. It is also possible that with social distancing, each interaction takes on more meaning and if we haven’t been sleeping well, then negative interactions, including even perceived rejections, may be amplified.

During this time, it is even more important to protect our sleep health and cultivate meaningful relationships whether they occur at 6+ feet or over Zoom.

Experiencing social rejection prior to bedtime was shown to:
• Cause participants to feel more left out
• Make participants feel more exposed to negative feedback
• Result in having a hard time falling asleep
• Instigate less sleep overall, and/or show more fragmented sleep

Aric A. Prather, PhD is an Associate Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the University of California, San Francisco. He has worked in the field of sleep medicine and research over 10 years.


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