The Role Sleep Plays in Processing Traumatic Events


Could a few hours of shut-eye help lessen the effects of traumatic events? Or could it make them worse by intensifying recurring memories?

A new study may reveal some answers.

In a study performed by the University of Zurich, 65 healthy female subjects were selected to participate in an experiment to find out what effect sleep has on the way the brain processes traumatic images. This was done to see whether sleep would cause the brain to hold on to the memory of the trauma, or if it would be relieved in some way.

Credit: JeremyFoo/Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0

The group of participants viewed a trauma film which contained disturbing images. They were then split into two groups. One group was kept awake immediately after viewing the film, while the other group was sent to sleep.

What the researchers found was that all subjects reported recalling the disturbing images throughout the week during which they were studied. However, those who fell asleep immediately after viewing the film reported far less intrusive images of the traumatic event, while the group that remained awake after viewing the film reported a much more frequent recurrence of these memories.

Related: Why Boys and Girls Handle Traumatic Events Differently

Particularly important for posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) patients, these findings could reveal a non-invasive method for relieving the recurring thoughts that can often be debilitating for these patients.

The only downside of this study is that sleep must occur as soon after the traumatic event as possible for the most effect, as it is an early-intervention method of treatment. This is not always a possibility, as many of these events are unexpected.

However, the study also showed that sleep can lessen the emotions connected with past traumatic memories, dulling the effect of these memories over time. For example, a particularly strong emotion, such as fear, can become more manageable after a few nights of sleep.

In addition, this is one of the few early-intervention treatments for dealing with traumatic events, and it’s a much safer and more natural alternative to medication or invasive attempts to remove these memories. Further studies will be done to collect more information on the power of sleep and how it can be beneficial in these traumatic instances.

Related: Low Estrogen Levels Tied to Greater Chance of Developing PTSD