Sleep has long been known to be closely associated with emotion. Dreams are tied to emotional states, and many theorize that dream content is based on emotional reactions during waking hours and, in particular, negative emotions such as fear, worry, and anxiety. Sleep patterns are also common predictors and symptoms of affective problems, such as depression and posttraumatic stress (PTSD). In fact, insomnia and fatigue are both unique characteristics of various types of psychological issues.
Although these associations have been validated in volumes of research, there is still much to learn about the relationship between sleep and emotion. In an attempt to explore this mystery further, Lucia M. Talamini of the Department of Psychology at the University of Amsterdam in the Netherlands recently led a study that looked at how exposure to negative stimuli affected emotional reaction and sleep patterns in a sample of 32 adults with no history of specific psychological problems.
The participants watched a neutral or negative film clip and were then monitored for rapid eye movement (REM) and sleep latency throughout the night. Using EEGs, Talamini assessed the emotional experience the participants had during sleep and how it affected their sleep patterns. She found that there were two unique emotional/sleep responses. One group responded moderately to the negative emotional stimuli and had an increased slow wave sleep (SWS) proportion while the other group had more extreme responses to the negative film and decreased REM sleep.
Talamini believes that these findings show that emotional response can have a positive and negative effect on sleep, thus protecting from or promoting risk for mood problems. The first group saw better overall sleep with increases in SWS. Therefore, Talamini theorized that the moderate emotional reaction to the stimuli could be linked to sleep in a unidirectional or bidirectional way that acts as a buffer. In contrast, the extreme emotional response in the second group was clearly linked to poorer REM sleep and therefore, regardless of the direction of the relationship, can be seen collectively as a risk for mood issues. Talamini said, “Our combined findings have implications for affective disorders, such as PTSD and depression.” Future work might attempt to extend these findings in order to more fully understand the relationship between sleep, emotional disturbance, and mood problems.
Talamini, L.M., Bringmann, L.F., de Boer, M., Hofman, W.F. (2013). Sleeping worries away or worrying away sleep? Physiological evidence on sleep-emotion interactions. PLoS ONE 8(5): e62480. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0062480
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