There is always a question of whether sleep worsens or improves how we process a traumatic event. Does it help, or are emotions and memories intensified because of sleep disturbance? This question is asked frequently to determine how best to treat trauma-related conditions like PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder).
Development of treatment courses for PTSD is highly influenced by how we process the distressing event immediately after it happens. Many PTSD patients often experience flashbacks, or other distressing emotions caused by memories of the event; these flashbacks and memories make them feel as if they are experiencing the trauma all over again. New research suggests that sleep may be playing a role in how an individual processes that suffering.
A team from the University of Zurich Department of Psychology and the Psychiatric University Hospital Zurich has conducted a study to look at whether sleep in those initial 24 hours after a traumatic event plays a role in an individual’s processing of the event. Also, they wanted to see if quality sleep has a positive effect on the emotional distress and flashbacks.
Test subjects were shown a traumatic video in a lab, and anything that they recounted in memory over the next few days was recorded in a diary. Essentially, it was noted that out of nowhere, subjects would experience an image or memory of what they saw, which would reawaken initial fearful and unpleasant thoughts and feelings. The visual and experiential quality of these memories were similar to those recorded by PTSD patients. However, the scientists noted that aside from the traumatic event, the memory recalls disappeared after just a few days.
Each participant was separated into one of two groups. One group remained awake throughout the night, while the other group slept in the lab connected to an EEG (electroencephalograph) to measure and record sleep patterns. Author Birgit Kleim from University of Zurich’s Department of Experimental Psychopathology and Psychotherapy notes that these results suggest that subjects who went to sleep right after the film had fewer episodes of memory recall that caused distressing emotions than those who stayed awake. This theory supports the one that suggests sleep plays a protective role in the aftermath of trauma.
On one side of the coin, sleep can weaken the emotions associated with an already existing trauma memory; on the other side of the coin, however, sleep can help process and contextualize the memories, allowing the brain to store them as informational memories only. This process likely takes several nights of good quality sleep, though.
The authors of this study note that early preventive treatments for those suffering from traumatic events are not as common as one might believe. This approach offers a unique opportunity to expand early interventions and non-invasive alternatives to attempt to head off PTSD related disorders without medication. Sleep may prove to be a natural preventive measure.
Rachael Herman is a professional writer with an extensive background in medical writing, research, and language development. Her hobbies include hiking in the Rockies, cooking, and reading.