Everyone experiences distressing events at various occasions in their life. These events can go on to cause various different problems for different people, some may experience post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) which affects them emotionally after the incident has occurred. Help might be in hand for this group, a new study compiled by the University of California, Berkeley has found that gaining an understanding in rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, a stage in sleep where there is a sharp decrease in norepinephrine (a chemical linked to stress) could help patients with PTSD.
The study recruited 35 volunteers which were spilt-up into two groups. Both groups were shown 150 images that were intended to stir an emotional reaction within the participants. After viewing the images one group was allowed to have a good night’s rest, while the other group was forced to stay awake. Both groups were then shown the images for a second time whilst inside a MRI scanner. This was required so the researcher could map the blood flow in the brain allowing them to understand which regions were activated. The group that was allowed to have a nights rest displayed less activation in their amygdale which is a region in the brain that is linked with emotions. This group also displayed an increase in activation in the prefrontal cortex which is associated with rational thinking. Results showed that the non-sleeping group stated they experienced a higher amount of emotional response when viewing the pictures for the second time.
Researchers from this study believe that the chemical changes that are experienced in the brain whilst a person is in REM sleep might just explain how the body makes these changes. One researcher stated, when an individual processing previous emotional experiences during the REM stage of sleep awakes the following morning those previous experiences have been softened. This then results in the person feeling better about the situation and experiencing the feeling that they are able to cope.
However it is important to bare in mind that there is more to PTSD then having a good night’s rest, it is likely there are additional factors that also play a role. A clinical psychologist has suggested that in individuals that have experience a severe trauma, it might be too difficult for them to process this event during their sleep cycle, especially if the incident had a dramatic affect on the person everyday life.