Does Dreaming Help us Overcome Painful Memories?

If you dealt with anything unsettling today, new research reinforces the theory that you’ll feel better if you take a nap

If time heals old wounds, dreaming may help speed up the recovery process. According to researchers from the University of California, Berkeley, dreaming takes the “painful edge” off difficult memories by chemically dampening a stressful event’s impact. Here’s what you should know:

How does this work?

Researchers discovered that brain chemicals associated with stress either become inactive or slow down during REM sleep, the period when we dream. Think of it as “overnight therapy,” says Matthew Walker, the study’s co-author. Dreaming is like “a soothing balm that removes the sharp edges from the prior day’s emotional experiences.”

How did they reach that conclusion?

Researchers monitored the brain activity of 35 healthy adults who were split into two groups and asked to view 150 potentially upsetting images on two separate occasions. One group looked at the images in the morning and again in the evening. The second group reviewed the pictures in the evening, had a full night’s sleep, then looked again in the morning. MRI scans revealed that the sleepers showed a “significant decrease in their emotional reaction to the images,” says Rick Nauert at Psych Central. Plus, “MRI scans showed a dramatic reduction in the reactivity in the amygdala, a part of the brain that processes emotions.” After a full night’s sleep, subjects tended to use the more rational parts of the brain to guide their reactions to these images.

How do these findings help us?

“Most people have to deal with traumatic events at some point in their lives,” says BBC News. Understanding the chemical link between REM sleep and stress may help unlock new treatments for PTSD patients and people struggling with mental illness. For the average person, this study reinforces the truism that a good night’s sleep is the best way to cope with life’s curveballs.