How REM Sleep Can Reduce Fear-Related Brain Activity

I scream, you scream, we all scream in stressful situations. Fortunately, a new study released by the Journal of Neuroscience has shed light on fear-reducing benefits that stem from adequate rapid eye movement (REM) sleep.

The study proposes that those who engage in sufficient REM sleep will respond better when placed in fearful scenarios. Using mild electric shocks as their control variable, they put this theory to the test. The results suggest that sleep may serve a “protective function against enhanced fear encoding through the modulation of connectivity between the hippocampus, amygdala, and the ventromedial PFC.” In layman’s terms, this means that those who underwent a REM sleep cycle had a less stressful experience when undergoing the electric shock as compared to those who never reached the rapid eye movement stage of their sleep cycle.

Scientists attribute this positive brain response to the production or non-production of norepinephrine. Norepinephrine, a stress-related hormone, can impact the fear center of the brain, the amygdala, making you more sensitive to fear-related stimuli. During REM sleep, the portion of the brain that produces norepinephrine is not active. When the brain doesn’t generate norepinephrine, stress levels are automatically reduced. The REM calibration hypothesis upholds this same ideology, proposing that norepinephrine levels can actually be neutralized during REM sleep.

On a larger scale, these findings could prove revolutionary for those suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). PTSD is defined as a “disorder characterized by failure to recover after experiencing or witnessing a terrifying event.” While the trauma related to PTSD should not be trivialized, something as common as REM sleep could make PTSD victims less prone to distress. With roughly 24.4 million Americans experiencing the harsh realities of PTSD, any solution is worth pursuing.

PTSD acronym spelled out to read Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in white chalk
[Image by IvelinRadkov/Thinkstock]

Falling into REM sleep isn’t as simple as closing your eyes and hoping for the best. In order to achieve REM sleep, doctors recommend abiding by a consistent sleep schedule, sleeping an extra hour for more restorative sleep, and cutting off caffeine and food consumption four hours before bedtime.

While one night of REM sleep certainly won’t cure all risks associated with fear, these scientific discoveries provide solace in knowing there are solutions.

[Featured Image by oatawa/Thinkstock]