Stress and sleep problems are closely associated - often feeding off one another. We’ve always considered a good night of sleep to be restorative and part of the healing process. It’s something we actively encourage and we’ve probably all experienced the way a problem that preoccupied us before sleep appears to recede or become easier to solve after it. It may therefore come as a bit of a surprise to learn that in some circumstances sleep actually consolidates the fears and memories of trauma. Put another way, depriving someone of sleep following exposure to a traumatic event, could reduce the risk of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
In a previous Sharepost I wrote about the chemistry of persistent anxiety and the quest of scientists to understand why people are affected to greater or lesser extents following trauma. I mentioned that the ability to forget anxiety appears to be an active process that affects different parts of the brain, which may be mediated by the brain chemistry. Even so, an important feature of anxiety disorders such as PTSD, is the formulation of memories associated with fear and that’s a process we associate with sleep.
The exact processes involved in sleep and the laying down of memory isn’t fully understood. At one level it seems pretty clear that quality and quantity of sleep has various implications on our ability to concentrate, learn and remember. What complicates the process is the fact that we have various stages of sleep and different types of memory and there appears to be some interplay between these stages and processes in the way we consolidate memory.
In the normal state of affairs it is therefore hugely important to have a good regular pattern of sleep. In the case of trauma, the latest evidence suggests that some disruption to sleep immediately afterwards prevents the consolidation of memories associated with the trauma.
Experiments into sleep deprivation following trauma or trauma simulations have been undertaken. For example, Soshi and Kim (2010) evaluated the effect of sleep deprivation on volunteers who were exposed to video clips of motor vehicle accidents. Later testing found that those who were deprived of sleep immediately afterwards had eliminated fear-associated memories. More recently, the Ben-Gurion University Anxiety and Stress Research Unit, reported that rats exposed to the smells of predators continued to exhibit post-trauma behavior if they slept following the exposure. Those that were kept awake did not subsequently exhibit trauma-like behavior.
Properly controlled human trials have yet to be conducted, but if the predictions are accurate, the simple act of sleep deprivation perhaps for as little as six hours, could represent simple and effective intervention for PTSD.
American Associates, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev (2012, July 18). Sleep deprivation may reduce risk of PTSD. ScienceDaily. Retrieved July 30, 2012, from http://www.sciencedaily.com /releases/2012/07/120718131750.htm