More Sleep Means Fewer Bad Memories

New research says your subconscious smooths over traumatic memories while you slumber.

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Dec 16 2016, 6:00pm

Image: Richard Newstead/Getty

At some point you've probably wished that you could just wipe a bad memory from your mind, Eternal Sunshine-style. Until the geniuses in Silicon Valley figure that one out, there's a far more palatable solution: Go the fuck back to sleep. When you've just had the day—or night—from hell, it appears that your brain's got your back: Immediate shuteye could be protective against bad memories, finds new research from the University of Zurich. 

In the study, researchers had 65 people watch either a "neutral" or a "traumatic movie" and then had them either sleep or stay awake. The outcome? Those who zonked out after watching the horror flick had fewer and less distressing "recurring emotional memories" than those who stayed awake.

"Everybody has always felt that REM sleep [the phase during which you dream] is tied to memory," says W. Christopher Winter, a neurologist specializing in sleep medicine who was not involved in the study. Think about it this way, he says: When you go to the store for bread and milk, you don't dream about it. "Your brain knows what to do and not to do with that." But a fight with your partner, a car wreck, or that disturbing episode of Westworld? "REM sleep is the process where we visit that, evaluate it, figure out what to do with it, and determine what kind of memory it should it be." That's one reason why immediate sleep helps us reduce the emotional overlay that we tend to put on traumatic events.

So even if you don't spend your afternoons in sleep studies watching the Saw movies, more shuteye could still help you to better process your emotions. When we skimp on sleep, we're more anxious, emotionally labile, and negative memories tend to be more distressing, Winter says. His recommendation: Set your alarm as late as possible. "Most of REM sleep happens during second half of night," he says, "so a little bit of extra time tacked on to the end of night could help."