Trauma: To Sleep or not to Sleep, That is the questions . . .

Before I was licensed I was the director of a Rape Trauma program.  I’ve gone on to successfully treat people with all manners of traumatic experiences from being in airplane crashes to buried alive.   One of the hallmarks is disturbed or disrupted sleep.  No matter what suggestions I might have or what they might try it doesn’t often help.   Even sleep medications don’t  always help.

Reading this release from The University of Massachusetts about how it might be better NOT to sleep after a traumatic event got my attention. 

“Sleeping after a traumatic event might lock in bad memories and emotions, a new study has found.
Researchers from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst asked more than 100 healthy adults to rate their emotional responses to a series of images, some depicting unsettling scenes. Twelve hours later, they rated the images again. The difference: Half of the subjects slept during the break; the other half did not.
“Not only did sleep protect the memory, but it also protected the emotional reaction,” said Rebecca Spencer, a neuroscientist at UMass Amherst and co-author of the study that was published in the Journal of Neuroscience.
Study subjects who stayed awake for 12 hours had a weaker emotional response to the unsettling images the second time around, suggesting sleep serves to preserve and even amplify negative emotions. Their memories were also weaker than those of their well-rested counterparts, as they struggled to remember whether they had seen the images before.

“It’s true that ‘sleeping on it’ is usually a good thing to do,” said Spencer, citing evidence that sleep boosts memory and other cognitive functions. “It’s just when something truly traumatic or out of the ordinary happens that you might want to stay awake.”
Spencer said people often find it difficult to sleep after a traumatic event.
“This study suggests the biological response we have after trauma might actually be a healthy, she said. “Perhaps letting people go through a period of insomnia before feeding them sleeping meds is actually beneficial.”
While the findings may have implications for post traumatic stress disorder, Spencer emphasized that daily emotional ups and downs are not grounds for sleep deprivation.
Just because we have a bad day doesn’t mean we should stay awake,” she said. “We need to maintain some memories and emotional context to know what to avoid. We do learn something from them.”

Although sleep gives the body some much-needed rest, the brain stays active. Spencer used polysomnography to monitor brain activity in some sleeping subjects.
“REM sleep in particular was associated with a change in how emotional you found something,” she said. “We think there are parts of the brain being activated during sleep that allow us to process those emotions more than during day.”

This work was supported by the National Institutes of Health and the UMass Amherst Commonwealth Honors College.

6 thoughts on “Trauma: To Sleep or not to Sleep, That is the questions . . .

  1. Perhaps I shouldn’t worry so much about my insomnia or strange sleep patterns.
    Especially right after an attack.

    unfortunately, right after I have a major attack I’m so exhausted I fall asleep. I normally wake up fretful, and full of anxiety….but still so tired I can’t hold my eyes open and sleep some more. I hate the idea that those episodes of sleep may well be reinforcing my memories of these horrific attacks.

    Once again, you’ve given me much to think about.


    • Wendy,
      There undoubtedly is a fine line between needing restorative sleep to recover and the reinforcement of trauma memory. I would follow my body’s needs and sleep.
      Often people are unable to sleep after trauma and there again it’s the mindbody giving us what we need at the time.


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