REM sleep helps process negative thoughts and memories
When we think negatively about events and situations in our lives, these negative thoughts and memories are accumulated and stored by our brain. I like to think of these negative thoughts and memories as being stored in a stress bucket. This stress bucket fills up with our daily negative experiences and thoughts which contribute to stress; these things can be small things like being late for work or not being able to find a parking space, or large things like losing your job or a relationship breakdown. They all add up and our head can get rather crowded by these unwanted thoughts and memories!
If you are a fan of Harry Potter, you might recall the ‘pensieve’ that Dumbledore uses. When he has too many thoughts and memories in his head, he siphons the excess thoughts into the basin using his wand. He says that "it becomes easier to spot patterns and links" in the memories when they're collected in the “pensieve”. In reality, REM sleep, or Rapid Eye Movement, is our equivalent of this “pensieve”.
At night, we enter in to REM sleep; the stage of sleep where we dream. During this stage of sleep, we re-run the events of our day and anything that might be in our stress buckets, either in clear exactly as it happened or metaphorically. These thoughts are then moved from the primitive part of the brain, where they are an emotional memory, to the intellectual part of the brain where they become a narrative memory. What this means is that the emotion has been stripped from the memory and you have a better control over it – you can think about it when you want to rather than it randomly popping up in your head when you don’t want it to. You can still recall that is wasn’t a pleasant experience but it no longer triggers the same emotional response as it once did and you are able to rationalise what happened.
I am sure that you are already familiar with how REM works, even without realising. Let’s say someone says something to you at work that upsets you. You go to bed that night and during your REM sleep your brain enters in to the process of emptying your stress bucket, changing those memories from emotional to narrative. So when you awaken in the morning, you may well have forgotten about what the person said, or you might not but you will definitely have more perspective on the event and be able to see the bigger picture, like with the “pensieve”.
Recently, BBC News Health reported that dreaming ‘eases painful memories’. Using MRI scans, Scientists were able to shed more light on how the brain deals with the memory of traumatic events and other negative, unpleasant experiences. The research carried out at The University of California showed that after a period of REM sleep, there was less activity in the areas of the brain linked to emotion (the amygdala) but instead, the part of the brain linked to rational thought (the prefrontal cortex) was more active.
In addition to emptying our stress bucket, during REM sleep there is a decrease in the neurotransmitter norepinephrine, a chemical transmitted by the brain associated with stress.
So as you can see, REM sleep is pivotal at helping to keep our stress levels down and emptying out those thoughts and memories which are no longer useful for us anymore. It is also of great advantage to those suffering with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
When our stress buckets are full to capacity or even overflowing, it makes sense that our brain would want to partake in more REM sleep to empty it. Unfortunately, this is not possible as the REM stage of sleep is restricted to approximately 20% of our sleeping patterns. So if our stress bucket is full, we never completely empty our buckets during our sleep and wake up still feeling stressed and affected by those unprocessed memories.
But there is good news! Hypnotherapy mimics REM sleep, helping to trigger a reduction in stress hormones and allowing your brain to process those painful memories and empty that stress bucket. Another great advantage of the hypnosis-induced REM state is that it doesn’t eat in to the 20% REM allowance of your sleep pattern – so you can go for a hypnotherapy session, listen to a hypnosis CD before you go to bed then still have your full 20% allowance of REM sleep, helping to process all those negative memories and thoughts and empty your stress bucket quickly and effectively.
Read the BBC News Health article - Dreaming ‘eases painful memories’
Read The University of California Berkeley article - Dream sleep takes sting out of painful memories