After undergoing stressful or traumatic events, people often struggle with ways to cope emotionally. As it turns out, the best solution may be to just stay awake.
A study out of the University of Massachusetts Amherst has uncovered a unique finding regarding a person’s emotional response after witnessing a traumatic or negative event. For those who stayed awake after seeing negative images, their emotional response was much less intense than those who slept afterward.
In fact, sleep helped to “preserve” the negative events in people’s minds. And if they were shown the negative item again or recalled it through a mental flashback, their negative emotions about the event were protected – and sometimes even intensified.
“This shows that sleep is an evolutionary advantage,” said Dr. Rebecca Spencer, assistant professor of psychology at UMass Amherst and one of the lead researchers for the project. “When you encounter someone who is bad, you should not only remember that person, but you should also remember that emotional memory in order to activate your fight or flight response.”
Spencer and her colleagues presented 106 young adults with a series of images, ranging from negative to neutral in tone. For the negative images, subjects were shown a picture they might see on the evening news, such as images of a country ravaged by war. They were then asked to rate their response to each image on a scale of one to nine in terms of happiness and excitement.
Subjects either saw the pictures in the morning so that they would remain awake or they were shown them at night right before going to sleep. Twelve hours later, each group was shown the images again and asked if they had ever seen them before and how they felt about them.
While sleep helped to preserve a person’s memory of negative images as well their emotional response to them, the scientists found the two processes to be independent of one another during sleep. The protection of emotional memory was much more closely related to the length of time individuals spent in rapid-eye-movement (REM) sleep period.