Escaping into sleep may not be the right way of dealing with a traumatic experience, a study suggests.
In fact, a period of sleep deprivation may act as a barrier to consolidating bad memories and reduce disturbing flashbacks.
How did scientists decide sleep was bad for trauma?
Researchers showed participants in the study a film containing emotionally traumatic scenes before. They then either prevented them from sleeping or allowed them a normal night’s sleep at home.
As far as science experiments go, it doesn’t sound like the most fun… Especially because the researchers actually wanted their guinea pigs to experience traumatic flashbacks.
Dr Kate Porcheret, from Oxford University’s Nuffield Department of Clinical Neurosciences, said: “We wanted to see what effect sleep deprivation would have on the development of intrusive memories – what in a clinical setting are called flashbacks.”
Each participant kept a diary to record intrusive memories, however fleeting, and was asked to provide as much information as possible.
What results did the sleepy participants record?
Team member Dr Katharina Wulff said: “The sleep-deprived group experienced fewer intrusive memories than those who had been able to sleep normally.
“Both groups experienced more of these involuntary memories in the first two days and a reducing number in the following days. We know that sleep improves memory performance including emotional memory, but there may be a time when remembering in this way is unhelpful.”
Does more research need to be done?
Further work is needed as flashbacks following traumatic events are still not well understood. This is largely because real-life trauma simply cannot be replicated in a laboratory.
Porcheret added: “Finding out more how sleep and trauma interact means we can ensure people are well cared for after a traumatic event. These are really important research questions to pursue further. For example, it is still common for patients to receive sedatives after a traumatic event to help them sleep, even though we already know that for some very traumatised people this may be the wrong approach.
“That is why we need more research in both experimental and clinical settings into how our response to psychological trauma is affected by sleep – and lack of sleep too.”