November 25, 2011
REM Sleep State Takes Edge Off Painful Events

When a physician at a U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs hospital in the Seattle noticed a blood pressure drug was preventing recurring nightmares a UC Berkeley researcher got interested in why. Turns out the drug suppresses the neurotransmitter norepinephrine and that during REM sleep norepinephrine goes down so that the brain can process painful memories in order to take the edge off them the next day. So in the REM sleep state it appears the brain processes emotionally difficult experiences to enable you to better handle these memories the next day.

They say time heals all wounds, and new research from the University of California, Berkeley, indicates that time spent in dream sleep can help.

UC Berkeley researchers have found that during the dream phase of sleep, also known as REM sleep, our stress chemistry shuts down and the brain processes emotional experiences and takes the painful edge off difficult memories.

The findings offer a compelling explanation for why people with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), such as war veterans, have a hard time recovering from painful experiences and suffer reoccurring nightmares.They also offer clues into why we dream.

"The dream stage of sleep, based on its unique neurochemical composition, provides us with a form of overnight therapy, a soothing balm that removes the sharp edges from the prior day's emotional experiences," said Matthew Walker, associate professor of psychology and neuroscience at UC Berkeley and senior author of the study to be published this Wednesday, Nov. 23, in the journal Current Biology.

A good night's sleep is probably of great enduring value after an emotionally painful day. Make it a point to go to sleep earlier after traumatic experiences.

Stress neurochemicals are suppressed during the REM phase while the brain processes emotionally laden memories.

"During REM sleep, memories are being reactivated, put in perspective and connected and integrated, but in a state where stress neurochemicals are beneficially suppressed," said Els van der Helm, a doctoral student in psychology at UC Berkeley and lead author of the study.

If you can avoid seeing or dealing with the same disturbing images twice while awake you'll be better able to handle the images after you have gotten some sleep.

Thirty–five healthy young adults participated in the study. They were divided into two groups, each of whose members viewed 150 emotional images, twice and 12 hours apart, while an MRI scanner measured their brain activity.

Half of the participants viewed the images in the morning and again in the evening, staying awake between the two viewings. The remaining half viewed the images in the evening and again the next morning after a full night of sleep.

Those who slept in between image viewings reported a significant decrease in their emotional reaction to the images. In addition, MRI scans showed a dramatic reduction in reactivity in the amygdala, a part of the brain that processes emotions, allowing the brain's "rational" prefrontal cortex to regain control of the participants' emotional reactions.

In addition, the researchers recorded the electrical brain activity of the participants while they slept, using electroencephalograms. They found that during REM dream sleep, certain electrical activity patterns decreased, showing that reduced levels of stress neurochemicals in the brain soothed emotional reactions to the previous day's experiences.

Sleep is therapeutic. Drugs can enhance the therapeutic effect. Good to know.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2011 November 25 06:18 PM  Brain Sleep

PacRim Jim said at November 26, 2011 2:46 AM:

One-third of your life is the price you pay for the other two-thirds.
Call it the biotax.

Axel said at November 26, 2011 6:27 PM:

I don´t understand this. When I have dreams (mostly nightmares or a bit disturbing), which I suppose are during the REM phase of sleep, I do not rest well and wake up tired and depressed. Maybe it is good to dream but do not remember or notice them while sleeping?.

Which drugs can enhance the therapeutic effect?

Richard said at November 27, 2011 11:43 AM:

"Move along . . . .move along, nothing new here, Mr. Shakespeare.":

Barry Krakow MD said at November 27, 2011 12:26 PM:

"Make it a point to go to sleep earlier after traumatic experiences" is potentially very bad advice. Following traumatic exposure many individuals develop hypervigilance, that is, an alerting behavior to remain awake to guard against future trauma. This hypervigilance is an early sign the individual may develop posttraumatic stress disorder(PTSD), but in the early going you cannot predict who will or will not develop chronic PTSD. However, the hypervigilance almost always triggers a bout of insomnia, and if you ask an insomniac to get into bed earlier, the insomnia usually worsens as the patient is now "trying" to go to sleep. Trying to go to sleep when you are hypervigilant is akin to pouring gasoline on a fire to put it out. As the patient lays awake in bed, he or she generates a psychophysiological response, which in the jargon of my field is called, "losing sleep over losing sleep." Moreover, if the insomnia is indeed worsened by laying awake in bed, the individual now increases their risk for developing PTSD and other psychiatric co-morbidities (e.g depression), because insomnia itself most likely prevents the emotional processing described in Walker's work. Bottom line is that in the early going after trauma, sleep specialists would generally recommend "don't force it." Your body is reacting naturally to trauma; you'll get back into your rhythm in a week or two. Some might prescribe sedatives, and that may be necessary for some individuals but often leads to a slippery slope and dependency on these drugs night after night. The mind and body will have plenty of time to gain access to REM to enhance emotional processing. Besides if the trauma survivor tried to get more sleep, they might have more nightmares, which then interrupt the REM cycle. Sometimes the "less is more" approach is quite therapeutic in the early aftermath of trauma.

Barry Krakow MD
Board-certified Sleep Medicine Specialist.

Janice Lyons said at November 27, 2011 1:38 PM:

Mmmm. Wonder if that is a reason why EMDR might "work" (assuming it does, to some degree).

The back and forth movement of the eyes might trigger the same / similar response in the brain as REM sleep?

I am not an EMDR therapist, but have always been puzzled by the mechanism by which it might work, if indeed it does.

willis said at November 27, 2011 2:44 PM:

So here's my prescription. Come January, 2013 (assuming Obama loses) take a heavy dose of blood pressure medicine every day for about six months and the 4-year nightmare you've just lived through should start to lose its edge.

Nick G said at November 27, 2011 4:27 PM:


I think REM sleep has a certain capacity which can be overtaxed. If stress is too great, it overwhelms dream processing, disrupts sleep and isn't removed.

I suspect meditation has a similar function to REM sleep.

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