A Good Night’s Sleep Really Does Make Us Happier By Dampening Negative Emotions

A good night sleep really can make us happier—because the brain triages emotions, solidifying the storage of positive emotions while dampening the negative ones—according to a new study.

Mental health issues can be squashed during sleep, including chronic stress, anxiety, depression, and panic.

Researchers at the Department of Neurology of the University of Bern and University Hospital Bern found that this process occurs during REM sleep, the time when people have the most intensely emotional dreams.

The study, published in the journal Science, shows how sleep is a vital method of improving mental health, as it dampens negative emotions and reinforces positive ones.

Rapid eye movement (REM or paradoxical) sleep is a unique and mysterious sleep state during which most of the dreams occur together with intense emotional contents. How and why these emotions are reactivated is unclear, however the prefrontal cortex integrates many of these emotions during wakefulness—but they appear to be paradoxically dormant during REM sleep.

The brain seems to favor the discrimination of safety versus danger, but blocks the over-reaction to emotion, in particular danger.

“Our goal was to understand the underlying mechanism and the functions of such a surprising phenomenon,” said Professor Antoine Adamantidis, of the Swiss university.

The researchers used mice to reach their conclusion. To do this they exposed some to a sound that they associated with safety and others to a sound they associated with danger.

They then recorded the brain activity of each mouse while they were awake and asleep to work out how emotional memories are transformed during REM sleep.

They found that two mechanisms work together to help process emotions. When the brain is awake it focuses on danger much more than the feeling of safety, but during REM sleep, the cells in the brain completely block out these emotions.

The researchers believe this coexistence of mechanisms keep organisms, such mice and humans, stable.

“This bi-directional mechanism is essential to optimize the discrimination between dangerous and safe signals,” said study first author Dr. Mattia Aime, a postdoctoral researcher at the Bern college.

Without the ability to discriminate between these emotions, humans are more likely to experience excessive fear, which can lead to anxiety disorders.

The findings pave the way to a better understanding of how humans process emotions during sleep and gives scientists new ideas on how to help those suffering from mental health problems such as Post Traumatic Stress Disorders.

“We hope that our findings will not only be of interest to the patients, but also to the broad public,” concluded Adamantidis.