Why a good night's sleep plays a bigger role in your emotional wellbeing than you realised

Written by Meg Walters

Most of us know that sleep comes with plenty of benefits ranging from improved digestion to radiant skin… but new research suggests that it might also help you deal with your negative emotions, too. 

There’s nothing quite like waking up after a long, deep sleep feeling refreshed and relaxed. You may even feel like any anxiety from the night before has melted away.

The benefits of a good night’s sleep are well documented – most of us know that hitting the hay is crucial for the healthy functioning of both the body and the mind. However, new research from the University of Bern published in Science Daily suggests that sleep may actually play a bigger role in our mental wellbeing than we realised.

Studying REM sleep and emotion 

In this study, researchers focused on REM (rapid eye movement) sleep. REM is the deepest stage of the sleep cycle – and it’s the time when most of our emotionally-charged dreams occur.

“Our goal was to understand the underlying mechanism and the functions of such a surprising phenomenon,” explained Professor Antoine Adamantidis.

In order to study how our brains process emotion during REM sleep, researchers used mice, conditioning them to associate specific sounds with fear and others with safety. They then recorded their brain activity to see whether the same patterns appeared in their brains during sleep. 

Why dreaming might help us process emotion 

What they discovered was that during sleep, both the positive and negative emotions reappeared in the brain – however, the negative emotions associated with fear were effectively uncoupled and blocked during REM sleep. As the study puts it, “The brain favours the discrimination of safety versus danger in the dendrites, but blocks the over-reaction to emotion, in particular danger.”

“This bi-directional mechanism is essential to optimize the discrimination between dangerous and safe signals,” said researcher Mattia Aime.

In other words, during our dreams, our brains appear to process and understand negative emotion without ‘blowing it out of proportion’ or exaggerating it. So, when we wake from our dreams, we should have a proportional, measured understanding of our own fear and negativity. 

What this means for our understanding of mental health 

The study concluded that if people don’t go through this process in their dreams, they may develop excessive fear and negativity, which could in turn lead to anxiety disorders. In some cases, such as in cases of post-traumatic stress disorder for instance, the brain starts to “over-consolidate” fear emotions during sleep, which in turn leads to anxiety during the day.

It also means that if you are constantly denying your body the sleep it needs, you may miss out on the REM sleep that your body needs to understand and process your negative emotions, leading to heightened anxiety during the day.

So, next time you’re feeling stressed or anxious, think about giving yourself a few extra hours in bed to let the mind work its magic on your negative emotions. You might just wake up feeling a little more positive.

Images: Getty

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