Clinical observations suggest that sleep problems may be a causal factor in the development of reactive aggression and violence. In this review we give an overview of existing literature on the relation between poor sleep and aggression, irritability, and hostility. Correlational studies are supporting such a relationship. Although limited in number, some studies suggest that treatment of sleep disturbances reduces aggressiveness and problematic behavior. In line with this is the finding that sleep deprivation actually increases aggressive behavior in animals and angriness, short-temperedness, and the outward expression of aggressive impulses in humans. In most people poor sleep will not evoke actual physical aggression, but certain individuals, such as forensic psychiatric patients, may be particularly vulnerable to the emotional dysregulating effects of sleep disturbances. The relation between sleep problems and aggression may be mediated by the negative effect of sleep loss on prefrontal cortical functioning. This most likely contributes to loss of control over emotions, including loss of the regulation of aggressive impulses to context-appropriate behavior. Other potential contributing mechanisms connecting sleep problems to aggression and violence are most likely found within the central serotonergic and the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal-axis. Individual variation within these neurobiological systems may be responsible for amplified aggressive responses induced by sleep loss in certain individuals. It is of great importance to identify the individuals at risk, since recognition and adequate treatment of their sleep problems may reduce aggressive and violent incidents.
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