Haunted by the past - People suffering from insomnia have difficulty finding a place for emotions

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Your cringe-worthy mistakes and embarrassing blunders of today: they won't feel so bad tomorrow. Unless you suffer from insomnia as shown by research from The Netherlands Institute For Neuroscience. Scientists had participants retrieve their most embarrassing memories from many years ago and did brain scans at the same time. The scans show that good sleepers literally give these memories a different place in the brain, but that people suffering from insomnia people cannot do this. This breakthrough suggests that insomnia is a disorder in the brain where emotions are processed and cleared up. For the first time it is made clear that insomnia is the most important predictor for the development of depression, anxiety disorder or post-traumatic stress disorder. The findings were published in the prominent journal Brain on 25 April.


Sleep not only helps with remembering important things but also with forgetting any associated stress, emotions and tensions. During sleep, the connections between brain cells change: where some connections become stronger so that you can remember things, others become weaker, shaking off the associated tension. “We know this nocturnal processing from expressions such as 'sleeping on it’.. However, it now appears that shaking off tension at night is reserved for good but not for bad sleepers. In fact, for people with restless nights, sleep can even have an adverse effect on stress, emotions and tensions, ”says Rick Wassing, lead author of the article.


The research confirms earlier found results. In a previous study, just published in the scientific journal Sleep, participants were asked to sing along with karaoke. The participants wore headphones that prevented them from hearing whether they were singing clean and in time. The vocals were recorded and later played unexpectedly. Participants felt intense shame when listening to their own often false singing. But if they listened to the recording after a good night's sleep, the shame had largely disappeared. The failure had been given a place. At least with the good sleepers. People suffering from insomnia were even more upset when listening again after a night of poor sleep.


While up until recently the underlying mechanisms of insomnia were investigated in areas of the brain involved in sleep, insomnia appears to be primarily a disorder of emotional regulation. The brains of bad sleepers experience unpleasant memories of years ago as if they are happening right now. Hereby the emotional network in the brain becomes active. The scientists Rick Wassing, Frans Schalkwijk and Eus van Someren show that bad sleepers are not able to give their nasty experiences a place and move on. They are, so to speak, haunted by memories from the past.

The research group of Eus van Someren is currently investigating the role of insomnia in mood disorders.

Source: The Netherlands Institute For Neuroscience press release

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