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Getting more sleep after a traumatic event can help ease negative effects, study finds

Experts wonder about how a lack of sleep could enhance trauma-related symptoms

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Photo (c) Aja Koska - Getty Images
Recent studies have highlighted the benefits of getting quality sleep each night, while others have shown how a lack of sleep can affect everything from consumers’ diets to cognitive functioning

Now, a new study conducted by researchers from Washington State University has found that sleep could be the key to better mental health following a traumatic event. According to their findings, increasing sleep time after a trauma was linked with fewer negative effects. 

“People with PTSD oftentimes experience nightmares and other types of sleep disturbances, such as frequent awakenings and insomnia,” said researcher William Vanderheyden. “One thought was that those sleep disturbances may cause further cognitive impairment and worsen the effects of PTSD or the initial trauma. So we wanted to see whether repairing the sleep disturbances associated with trauma exposure could help alleviate the symptoms of PTSD.” 

The power of sleep

Over the course of a three-day study conducted on mice, the researchers sought to understand how sleep can affect mental health outcomes following a trauma. On the first day, the mice heard a sound and then were immediately shocked in the foot. After they had grown used to this experience, the next two days were devoted to having them forget that memory, by having the sound played without the shock. 

In terms of their sleeping habits, half of the mice were given optogenetic stimulation prior to the three-day experiment, which allows a sleep-related hormone to be released in greater quantities and aids in longer sleep times. The other half of the group received no interventions and slept as they normally would. 

The researchers learned that the group that had received optogenetic stimulation not only slept longer over the course of seven days, but they were also better at forgetting the traumatic experience of getting shocked in the foot during the three-day experiment. 

The mice in the control group had a harder time forgetting the shock, and would freeze in place after hearing the sound that had signaled the shock was coming. Conversely, the mice who had gotten more sleep were better at breaking the association between the sound and the traumatic experience. 

In thinking about how these findings could apply to humans and traumatic situations, the researchers believe that sleep-related interventions could be beneficial. However, the researchers do wonder about the role that time plays, as they hypothesize that the greatest success will come immediately following a traumatic event and not in trying to heal past traumas. 

“This highlights that there is a time-sensitive window when -- if you intervene to improve sleep -- you could potentially stave off the negative effects of trauma,” Vanderheyden said. “Conversely, it seems likely that if you are kept awake after a trauma, this could potentially be harmful to your cognitive function, though we haven’t directly tested this as part of our study.” 

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