A good night’s sleep has long been recommended to those who have experienced a traumatic event. Now an Oxford-led study suggests we’ve got it all wrong.

Sleep of the trauma? That could be a mistake

Sleep deprivation might prevent people from consolidating memories of experimental trauma, reducing their tendency to experience flashbacks, according to a new Oxford-led study.

The research, conducted in the Wellcome Trust-funded Sleep and Circadian Neuroscience Institute (SCNi) and published in the journal Sleep, involved showing volunteers emotional film clips and seeing how they responded after different amounts of sleep.

Dr Kate Porcheret, from the Nuffield Department of Clinical Neurosciences, said: ‘We wanted to see what effect sleep deprivation would have on the development of intrusive memories — what in a clinical setting are called flashbacks. After showing participants a film of scenes with traumatic content, as an analogue to trauma, they were either kept in a sleep laboratory and deprived of sleep or sent home to have a normal night’s sleep in their own bed.’

Each person then kept a diary in which they recorded any intrusive memories, however fleeting, recording as much information as possible so that the research team could check that the intrusive images were linked to the film.

Dr Katharina Wulff, from the SCNi, said: ‘The sleep-deprived group experienced fewer intrusive memories than those who had been able to sleep normally. Both groups experienced more of these involuntary memories in the first two days and a reducing number in the following days. We know that sleep improves memory performance including emotional memory, but there may be a time when remembering in this way is unhelpful.’

The team behind the study, which was also funded by the MRC, stress that further research is needed. There is currently limited understanding of intrusive memories of emotional events as well as of the role of sleep in responding to real trauma, and real-life trauma cannot be directly replicated in an laboratory study.

Dr Porcheret added: ‘Finding out more how sleep and trauma interact means we can ensure people are well cared for after a traumatic event. These are really important research questions to pursue further. For example, it is still common for patients to receive sedatives after a traumatic event to help them sleep, even though we already know that for some very traumatised people this may be the wrong approach. That is why we need more research in both experimental and clinical settings into how our response to psychological trauma is affected by sleep – and lack of sleep too.’

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The article is reproduced from the University of Oxford’s News and Events page with kind permission. Image by Lauren Rushing via Flickr, under Creative Commons licence.


By Annie Kile

Trust me, sleeping too much after a traumatic event or series of events isn't the problem (70-91% of us can't sleep.) Being able to sleep period is the problem. Here is an excerpt from a reliable science based resource to increase you trust in my comment. "Sleep disturbances in patients with post-traumatic stress disorder: epidemiology, impact and approaches to management. Maher MJ1, Rego SA, Asnis GM. Abstract: Subjective reports of sleep disturbance indicate that 70-91% of patients with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) have difficulty falling or staying asleep.

By E.C.Hurley,PhD

I work with complex PTSD patients daily - U.S. military. Sleep is a major issue. Lack of sleep contributes to mental processing limitations. More sleep contributes to clarity of cognitive processing and personal empowerment.

By Leckey

It might be possible that the dream state is when the body (where stress and trauma reside primarily) sends the signal that the events need to be metabolized. How does one address the needs of long term trauma with this hypothesis?

Now consider that groups like veterans and emergency responders, who have high levels of PTSD from actual traumatization, have notorious records for poor sleep over long periods of time.

If people allow their bodies to do what the body naturally does to release stress and trauma, sleep deprivation wouldn't be an issue.