Getting a Full Night’s Rest Means You're Probably More Resilient Than Everyone Else

Harvey Flooding Raft
The quality of sleep someone gets before a trauma like Hurricane Harvey could indicate how well they'll be able to recover from it, according to new research published Monday in the "Journal of Neuroscience." Joe Raedle/Getty Images

No one likes getting a bad night's sleep. But for people who experience stressful situations, restless nights could mean that they'll find coping with that stress more difficult. New research, published Monday in the Journal of Neuroscience, indicated that how soundly a person sleeps before a trauma might indicate how well they can recover from it.

That may seem obvious, but this is the first time that scientists have really analyzed the effect, researcher Itamar Lerner tells Newsweek. Lerner and his colleague, Shira Lupkin, measured how much sleep people got before they felt uncomfortable electric shocks; over time, the subjects learned to associate the shocks with a picture. Lerner, Lupkin and their team measured how their subjects's brain activity changed in regions associated with fear and PTSD.

The activity in the brains of people who got more REM sleep before they started receiving the shocks changed less, on average, indicating that they were more resilient to trauma. (Though these electric shocks hardly compare with a natural disaster or war, it's a commonly-used model in psychological research.) "What comes out of our study is that yes, there is something about the regular, daily amount of REM sleep that people have on average that can influence or predict how their brain will react to fear learning later on," Lerner says. Lerner and Lupkin are both researchers at Rutgers University.

Sleep Hurricane Irma Estaban Ramos and his dog Mia sleep in the parking lot of the apartment building where he lived before being evacuated when Hurricane Irma passed through the area on September 19 in Miami. Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Rapid eye movement sleep, or REM sleep, is a particular stage of sleep associated with vivid dreams. Changing the amount of REM sleep people have is not easy, Lupkin noted. "There's nothing we can really do to increase the amount of REM, other than increasing the total amount of sleep," she says. Decreasing the amount of REM sleep people obtain is another matter. As people age, the amount of REM sleep naturally decreases; some medications, like antidepressants, can also cause people to get less REM sleep.

Sleep definitely impacts the way we process traumas. Many people think disorders like PTSD might develop because the brain isn't able to unlink a certain stimulus that someone's experienced during a trauma—like a noise, sound or smell—with the emotions and fear that accompanied it.

Brad Schwarz Service Dog Brad Schwarz, with his service dog Panzer, attends a Chicago Cubs game with a group of veterans from the Wounded Warrior Project at Wrigley Field on June 14, 2012, in Chicago. Schwarz uses Panzer to help him cope with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) issues related to his 2008 tour in Iraq. New research indicates it may be possible to determine who will be more resilient or who may be at higher risk for PTSD based on sleep patterns. Scott Olson/Getty Images

"What this research underscores is the importance of sleep to psychological and physical resilience," Dr. Thomas Mellman tells Newsweek. Mellman, a sleep and trauma researcher at Howard University, was not involved in the research.

In theory, this research could lead to sleep screening for people who might be exposed to traumatic events at work, like soldiers or first responders. However, Mellman said, those kinds of screenings are not yet precise enough to be useful. "I do see the implications more along those lines that it’s not good to compromise sleep," Mellman says. "Sleep contributes to resilience and if we’re going to manipulate the amount of REM sleep, the practical implication of that would be to preserve early morning sleep, when REM predominates."

So sleep in a bit more. It might be good for your psychological health. 

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