PTSD Study: Sleep Deprivation May Help You Cope With Traumatic Events

01/30/2011 12:05 pm ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

In a new study published this month in the journal Biological Psychiatry, researchers from the National Institute of Mental Health in Tokyo examined the relationship between sleep deprivation and fear associated with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). PTSD is a serious disorder in which, after some type of traumatic event (combat, natural disaster, abuse, etc.) involving the threat of injury or death, a person can suffer from a debilitating anxiety disorder involving the following:

  • a heightened sense of awareness (e.g. insomnia)
  • reliving the event (e.g. nightmares)
  • avoidance of things that remind them of the event (e.g. the bedroom)
  • guilt about their survival

The researchers recruited two groups of healthy volunteers. All participants watched a film with traumatic content. Then, one group was allowed to go to sleep, while the other was forced to stay awake for 24 hours. Amazingly, the researchers measured less fear of the film's content in the sleep-deprived group than in the group that got to sleep.

The researchers hypothesized that a case of sleep deprivation, like acute insomnia after a life threatening trauma, may help prevent people from forming fearful memories. Not long ago, I blogged about sleep and memory. We know that Rapid Eye Movement sleep (REM Sleep) is when we see a good portion of the mental restoration, when we move information from our short term memory into our long term memory and organize our thoughts in such a way that can help us recall information later on. Could it be that with total sleep deprivation the brain is not allowed to form a long term memory of an event? While this may be possible, more research is certainly needed to better understand this complex situation.

Current treatments for PTSD include reliving the experience ("exposure") and then working with someone on the feelings that are brought up by re-living the experience. In many cases, anxiety medication or sleep medication may be warranted. Complications associated with PTSD may include depression, substance abuse and alcoholism.

If you feel like you may be suffering from PTSD, contact your doctor immediately. This is not a situation that will simply "work itself out."

Sweet Dreams,

Michael J. Breus, PhD
The Sleep Doctor™


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