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Why It's Always Better to Sleep On It

REM sleep can break cycles of stress and help heal trauma.

In our work, we see kids from affluent schools and from underserved communities who are highly anxious and feel emotionally overwhelmed for long periods of time—perhaps for a whole school year, or longer. Along with other concerned adults, we have often wondered, why don’t these kids get better with treatment? Why do they stay anxious for so long? New research suggests one of the answers.

It has long been observed that difficulty sleeping is both a symptom and a cause of anxiety and other mental health issues. Sleep alters our perception of what we experienced when we were awake, such that a lack of sleep has been compared to a negativity bomb—that is, when we don’t sleep enough, we’re much more likely to see the world through grumpy-colored glasses, and to more readily recall negative images and feelings, whereas with adequate sleep we have a rosier outlook and feel more capable of tackling whatever comes our way. Now a new book by Matthew Walker highlights another, lesser-known superpower for sleep: The Rapid Eye Movement (REM)-phase, or dream phase, of sleep can help heal painful emotions.

Once it was thought that dreaming was a happenstance byproduct of sleep, something that didn’t really improve our health or our lives, but Walker conducted a study that demonstrates otherwise. When we are in REM sleep, that is the ONLY time in our entire day and night when our brain does not have noradrenaline, a stress-related chemical. During REM sleep other stress levels are also much lower than they are at other times. This means that you can replay anxious moments of your day or more distant emotional memories during REM sleep, but without noradrenaline and other stress chemicals, the replay is emotionally muted. It’s like watching a suspenseful movie without any of the special effects or background music. Oh, you observe, that man appears to be being chased. In a somewhat detached way, you can note his escape route. But without the mood music and spooky lighting effects, your heartrate doesn’t rise, you don’t feel stressed. And as a result, your thinking is clearer.

Let’s say that you have a painful fight with your partner. You dream about it or some other conflict reminiscent of it. The dream may have replayed some of what went on, some of the central plot, so you see the action. But you don’t feel the stress behind it. You may still be mad the next day, but the loaded interaction has less of a bite. You’ve had the opportunity to process the events without the stress, and so you can be a bit more objective.

In other words, Walker’s study shows us that while we’ve long known that things look better in the morning, the specific act of dreaming heals emotions. Walker even refers to it as “overnight therapy.” We saw this play out firsthand when Bill watched the interviews of twenty kids from an innercity school in a violence-filled community in San Francisco, almost all of whom had directly experienced or witnessed trauma. They were part of the new Quiet Time program, through which they practiced Transcendental Meditation for two 15-periods every day during school. After three months, virtually every kid said during a video interview that for the first time in years, they were able to sleep through the night. Meditation made their brains feel safe enough to fall asleep and being able to engage in these periods of REM sleep helps to explain why they reported lower levels of anxiety. Their trauma wasn’t immediately erased by any means, but by working through stressful events at night, in a sleep state devoid of noradrenaline, they could begin to heal.

There’s great cause for encouragement if we can help heal these chronically tired and anxious kids through sleep. However, two new findings make us concerned. A recent study showed that when people read on their phones, tablets, or other light-emitting devices before bed, they have lower amounts of REM sleep. Also, alcohol, when consumed six to eight hours before bed, impedes REM sleep. Since inadequate sleep lowers our executive function—our ability to plan, organize, and make good decisions—it becomes a negative cycle. When we’re tired, we’re more likely to stay up too late watching our screens or reading on them, or, particularly in the case of college-aged kids, binge drinking. The problem is compounding and reinforcing.

We’ve got a big job ahead of us, but if parents, teachers, counselors, and coaches work together to shift priorities and emphasize what’s important in development, we can help kids to get this restorative sleep.

More from William Stixrud, Ph.D. and Ned Johnson
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