How Sleep Helps Process Emotions: The Science of Why We Need to Rest

We all know that sleep is important, but what many of us don’t realize is just how crucial it is for our emotional health. Believe it or not, sleep plays a huge role in our ability to process and understand emotions. In this blog post, we will explore the science behind sleep and emotion, and discuss the importance of getting enough rest. If you’re struggling with sleep disorders like insomnia or narcolepsy, make sure to read on – there may be hope for you yet!

Researchers at the Department of Neurology of the University of Bern and University Hospital Bern identified how the brain triages emotions during dream sleep to consolidate the storage of positive emotions while dampening the consolidation of negative ones. The work expands the importance of sleep in mental health and opens new ways of therapeutic strategies.

Rapid eye movement (REM or paradoxical) sleep is a unique and mysterious sleep state during which most of the dreams occur together with intense emotional contents. How and why these emotions are reactivated is unclear. The prefrontal cortex integrates many of these emotions
during wakefulness but appears paradoxically quiescent during REM sleep. “Our goal was to understand the underlying mechanism and the functions of such a surprising phenomenon,” says Prof. Antoine Adamantidis from the Department of Biomedical Research (DBMR) at the University of Bern and the Department of Neurology at the Inselspital, University Hospital of Bern.

Processing emotions, particularly distinguishing between danger and safety, is critical for the survival of animals. In humans, excessively negative emotions, such as fear reactions and states of anxiety, lead to pathological states like Post-Traumatic Stress Disorders (PTSD). In
Europe, roughly 15% of the population is affected by persistent anxiety and severe mental illness. The research group headed by Antoine Adamantidis is now providing insights into how the brain helps to reinforce positive emotions and weaken strongly negative or traumatic
emotions during REM sleep. This study was published in the journal Science.


A Dual mechanism
The researchers first conditioned mice to recognize auditory stimuli associated with safety and others associated with danger (aversive stimuli). The activity of neurons in the brain of mice was then recorded during sleep-wake cycles. In this way, the researchers were able to map different areas of a cell and determine how emotional memories are transformed during REM sleep.

A survival advantage
According to the researchers, the coexistence of both mechanisms is beneficial to the stability and survival of the organisms: “This bi-directional mechanism is essential to optimize the discrimination between dangerous and safe signals,” says Mattia Aime from the DBMR, first author of the study. If this discrimination is missing in humans and excessive fear reactions are generated, this can lead to anxiety disorders. The findings are particularly relevant to pathological conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorders, in which trauma is overconsolidated in the prefrontal cortex, day after day during sleep.

Breakthrough for sleep medicine
These findings pave the way to a better understanding of the processing of emotions during sleep in humans and open new perspectives for therapeutic targets to treat maladaptive processing of traumatic memories, such as Post Traumatic Stress Disorders (PTSD) and their
early sleep-dependent consolidation. Additional acute or chronic mental health issues that may implicate this somatodendritic decoupling during sleep include acute and chronic stress, anxiety, depression, panic, or even anhedonia, the inability to feel pleasure. Sleep research and sleep medicine have long been a research focus of the University of Bern and the Inselspital, Bern University Hospital. “We hope that our findings will not only be of interest to the patients, but also to the broad public,” says Adamantidis.

Sleep is vital for our physical and emotional health, yet many of us don’t get enough. We’ve explored some of the science behind why sleep is so important and how it helps us process emotions. Now that you understand the importance of sleep, what can you do to make sure you’re getting enough? If you’re struggling with insomnia or another sleep disorder, contact us for treatment options. Our team of experts will work with you to create a personalized plan that will help you get the rest you need to feel your best. Thanks for following along on this exploration of the science of sleep!