Study Finds Insomniacs Are Haunted by the Past

(CN) – Short night? Researchers have uncovered data that support the idea that brain circuits carrying emotions like shame link directly to insomnia, and that sleeplessness itself multiplies the effects of distress well into the days ahead.

Researchers based at the Netherlands Institute for Neuroscience studied people with insomnia as well as “good” sleepers to better understand the ways that trauma and emotionally stressful incidents are – or are not – reprocessed in the human brain, leading to the memories’ neutralization or continuing bother to the person who experienced them.

Sleep is essential for processing the emotional distress collected from experiences throughout the day. The processing involves changes in brain cells, either strengthening and consolidating memories or weakening the distress to get rid of unwanted associations.

“Brain research now shows that only good sleepers profit from sleep when it comes to shedding emotional tension,” said the study’s first author, Rick Wassing, in a statement.

The study, published Thursday in the journal Brain, follows related research by the same team in the journal Sleep. For the former study, the researchers had participants sing karaoke. The participants wore headphones that prevented them from hearing their own voices while the researchers took recordings.

While listening to playback, study participants felt varying levels of shame. Those with insomnia not only had a harder time shaking off the fact that they sounded disturbing, but also became even more upset when thinking about the experience after waking again after a bad night’s sleep.

The new research gives credence to the value of further study of the role of limbic brain circuits and the autonomic nerves. Linked genes may not activate the same way for all people during rapid eye movement sleep, the deepest level of sleep with the most intense dreaming, which occurs several times a night for deep sleepers.

In an email, Wassing said REM sleep “may be involved in ‘uncoupling’ the limbic circuit from emotional memory traces.” In other words, deep sleep helps shelve the memory of emotional distresses that occur in our waking lives.

“A second important finding is that the most striking difference in sleep variables between people with insomnia and good sleepers, is the number of interruptions during sleep. It is not necessarily the shorter time that people with insomnia sleep, but the interruptions of sleep that could be the main culprit. These findings can now be applied in studies employing therapies for insomnia,” Wassing said in the email.

A good night’s sleep seems to have more lasting value than just for the day. The study indicates that “bad sleepers” may not be equipped to place past losses in perspective quickly enough, which may give others an edge in life.

“In fact, their restless nights can even make them feel worse,” said Wassing.

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