29 November 2011

Dream Sleep Relieves Stress from Emotional Pain

Researchers at the University of California, Berkeley discovered that during the REM phase of sleep (also known as the dream phase), our body's stress chemistry shuts down while the brain processes emotional experience and relaxes us off the difficult memories. Basically, the research finds that time spent in dream sleep can help us overcome painful and stressful experiences.

Matthew Walker is an associate professor of psychology and neuroscience at UC Berkeley and senior author of the study to be published in the journal Current Biology.

Walker says, "The dream stage of sleep, based on its unique neurochemical composition, provides us with a form of overnight therapy, a soothing balm that removes the sharp edges from the prior day’s emotional experiences,”

This may help explain why people with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) have a hard time recovering from distressing experiences and suffer reoccurring nightmares. War veterans are most likely to suffer from PTSD.

Post-traumatic Stress Disorder is a severe anxiety disorder that can develop after exposure to any event that results in psychological trauma.

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But this insight also offer clues into why we dream. Walker says, "We know that during REM sleep there is a sharp decrease in levels of norepinephrine, a brain chemical associated with stress. By reprocessing previous emotional experiences in this neuro-chemically safe environment of low norepinephrine during REM sleep, we wake up the next day, and those experiences have been softened in their emotional strength. We feel better about them, we feel we can cope."

Walker said he got the idea when a physician at a U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs hospital in Seattle told him of a blood pressure drug that was inadvertently preventing recurring nightmares in patients with PTSD.

The drug had a side effect of suppressing the chemical norepinephrine in the brain. This creates a more stress free brain during REM which results in reducing nightmares and better quality sleep. According to Walker, this suggests a connection between PTSD and REM sleep.

Unlike other brain conditions such as Parkinson's disease, PTSD is psychological in nature. This makes it difficult to treat as the conditions that result in it are not physical in nature. But this doesn't mean that other brain conditions are easily treatable. The study gives more insight into why we dream and how it can help in PTSD and other psychological conditions.

"This study can help explain the mysteries of why these medications help some PTSD patients and their symptoms as well as their sleep," Walker said. "It may also unlock new treatment avenues regarding sleep and mental illness."

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