How Sleep Helps You Process Your Emotions and Can Aid Your Mental Health

The benefits of sleep are blatantly evident in our everyday lives. I mean, we have all endured slogging through a day after having little to no sleep. Albeit, that is sometimes our own poor decision making. Anyway, needless to say, we are not exactly firing on all cylinders the day after a restless night. It is a no-brainer (excuse the pun) that our minds need to be well-rested so that we can effectively deal with our day-to-day tasks.

A good night’s sleep is key to excelling at work, sports, school, housework, parenting, reading, writing, etc. This is not to say that we cannot do these things on minimal sleep, but it can certainly affect the quality in which we perform them. In addition to providing us with the energy we need to live our best day, sleep can also help us:

  • Get sick less often
  • Stay at a healthy weight
  • Lower our risk of serious health problems, i.e. heart disease and diabetes
  • Get along better with people and generally make better decisions

Some of you may be thinking; ‘yes, I am aware of all of this, what’s new?’ Well, new research out of the University of Bern has been investigating further the capabilities of sleep. Specifically, how sleep aids our mental health. When I refer to improving our mental health I don’t merely mean a bad sleep will make you grumpy and a great sleep will have you in a better mood. I think that is well established (in fact, I would be a suitable case study to prove that!). I am referring to the treatment of mental illnesses such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and anxiety.

How to effectively reset your sleep routine

The Research

The Department of Neurology at the University of Bern and the University Hospital of Bern have made significant discoveries as to what happens when we slumber. The research, headed by Antoine Adamantidis, identified that the brain processes and organises emotions during dream sleep (deep sleep) to strengthen the storage of positive emotions while dampening the build-up of negative emotions.

REM Sleep

When I mention dream sleep, I am referring to rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. REM is a unique sleep state during which most of our dreams occur together with intense emotional content. 

Any of you that have had the extraordinary displeasure of experiencing ‘night terrors’ (sleep paralysis) will know the intensity of REM sleep. You know the one, you are unaware you are in a dream state, assuming you are wide awake only to notice you cannot move any body part, completely paralyzed. You try to scream for help (usually your mother) but your mouth won’t open and then, to add to this profound fear, you can always either see or feel the presence of some manner of demonic figure stalking you at the end of your bed. If you know, you know. However, if you have never heard of this, I envy you.

Anyway, back to the research. The work of Antoine Adamantis shows how the brain reinforces positive emotions during REM sleep. A deep sound sleep, like that experienced during REM, helps in crystallising emotional information.

Processing emotions and the ability to differentiate between fear and safety are critical for the survival of all animals. For humans, prolonged exposure to emotions such as fear and anxiety results in serious mental illnesses such as PTSD. A sobering, yet significant, stat I stumbled across is that roughly 15% of the population of Europe is affected by persistent anxiety and severe mental illness. This staggering percentage reinforces the importance of research such as this.

What happens when we sleep?

Implications of the Research

The University of Bern’s findings paves the way to a better understanding of the processing of emotions during sleep in humans. More importantly, they open new perspectives for therapies to treat the processing of traumatic memories, which can lead to PTSD. Additional mental health issues that these findings implicate include acute and chronic stress, anxiety, depression, panic, or even anhedonia, which is the inability to feel pleasure. Adamantidis stated in his research:

“We hope that our findings will not only be of interest to the patients but also to the broad public.”

The bottom line, sleep is important and necessary for us to operate to the extent of our abilities, both physically and mentally. And who knows, research such as this could play a pivotal role in tackling the ever-present monster that is mental illnesses in our societies.

If you’d like to learn more about what happens when we sleep I would recommend the Huberman Lab podcast for some fascinating insights.

Default image
Ronan Kirby

Leave a Comment