Scientists are discovering that our bodies have a built-in way of dealing with stressful emotions and bad memories that is closely tied to sleeping. In the REM stage of sleep, which is when dreams occur, levels of stress hormones decrease. “During REM sleep, memories are being reactivated, put in perspective and connected and integrated, but in a state where stress neurochemicals are beneficially suppressed,” said Els van der Helm, a doctoral student in psychology at UC Berkeley and lead author of a recent study on dreams.
What’s the Big Idea?
UC Berkeley researchers first hypothesized that REM sleep helps to manage difficult emotional experiences when they learned of a blood pressure drug that was unexpectedly reducing the occurrence of nightmares in PTSD sufferers. A side effect of the drug was the suppression of norepinephrine, a stress chemical located in the brain. Researchers found that REM sleep also reduces levels of norepinephrine while dreams help to sort through the day’s events. The discovery may open new avenues of treatment.