Sleep May “Lock In” Bad Memories, Emotions, Study Finds

Although it might be your first impulse to go for a soothing lie down after suffering a trauma, new research shows that sleeping following an upsetting experience or event may cement the feelings, emotions or memories associated with the occurrence in your brain.

A study out of the University of Massachusetts Amherst was published in the Journal of Neuroscience, and more than 100 healthy adults were included in the research to explore the effects of sleep on processing of trauma. All were showed images- some described as “disturbing”- and then polled after a period of time to measure their responses to the images. Half of the subjects slept between the two viewings of images, the other half stayed awake.

Among the half that were able to nap, reaction to the images after their snooze was more marked than that among the half that did not sleep. Neuroscientist Rebecca Spencer at UMass co-authored the study, and of the findings, she said:

“Not only did sleep protect the memory, but it also protected the emotional reaction… It’s true that ‘sleeping on it’ is usually a good thing to do. It’s just when something truly traumatic or out of the ordinary happens that you might want to stay awake.”

Spencer referenced the benefit of processing a negative experience more thoroughly before heading to bed, saying:

“This study suggests the biological response we have after trauma might actually be a healthy. Perhaps letting people go through a period of insomnia before feeding them sleeping meds is actually beneficial… Just because we have a bad day doesn’t mean we should stay awake. We need to maintain some memories and emotional context to know what to avoid. We do learn something from them.”

Spencer indicated that there may be “parts of the brain being activated during sleep that allow us to process those emotions more than during day.”