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Sleep loss may disrupt the brain's ability to 'unlearn' fear

Author: NeuroGym Team | 2021

Did you wake up this morning feeling energetic and well-rested, or did you experience tiredness from sleep loss?

If you didn’t get enough sleep last night or in the previous week, then you aren’t alone. Just over 35% of American adults sleep less than seven hours per night, and almost half of the population feel lethargic several days each week.

You might think this is okay, but it’s not. Insufficient sleep can have disastrous consequences for your health and wellness, and a recent study found that it can exacerbate fear. That’s no good at all.

Studying Sleep Loss

Sleep researchers at prominent American universities recently conducted a brain-imaging study to see how insufficient sleep affects people.

The study was conducted in a sleep lab where volunteers offered to sleep to learn more about fear. The researchers wanted to assess how the brain unlearns fear. Specifically, the researchers wanted to understand how sleep can help to minimize or erase fears.


Three Groups

The sleep study took three nights. Researchers allowed participants to follow their normal sleep schedules on the first night.

On the second night, researchers dictated the amount of sleep participants would get. The volunteers were split into three groups that would get a normal night’s rest, have sleep restrictions, or be sleep-deprived. Participants in the sleep-deprivation group were kept awake most of the night.

The final night was back to normal, and volunteers could sleep all night.

Shocking Colors

A standard experiment was used to teach fear to participants on the third morning—after the night of restricted sleep.

The experiment required participants to lie in an MRI scanner. They were then shown three colors one at a time. With two of the colors, a mild electric shock was administered to the participant. It created an association between shocking and the specific colors which induce fear for those colors in the future.

Researchers then wanted the brain to erase this fear. They showed the participants the colors again, and one of the colors previously paired with an electric shock no longer had any shock with it. This signaled to the brain that the color was now “safe.”

The same experiment, but without the shocks, was repeated that night to see whether the brain had extinguished its fear.

Insightful Results About Fear and the Brain

The scans showed a remarkable difference in unlearning fear between the different groups.

The brains of participants who had sufficient sleep activated the silence network (related to conditioned fear) when it came to the fear-extinguishing process. The prefrontal cortex that regulates emotions also became active during the process, so they had removed the fear associated with the colors.

The same couldn’t be said of the other groups. Participants from the sleep-restricted group activated their salience networks, but their pain aversion regions also showed strong activity. Regulatory networks barely functioned in these volunteers, so they had strong fear associations with the relevant colors.

The group who experienced sleep deprivation had excessive brain activity in areas linked to fear. The regions controlling emotions had severely limited activity. These participants couldn’t unlearn the connection between color, electric shocks, and fear.

Don’t Let Fear Run Rampant

Fear can overpower your brain and take over your life. You need to take active steps to stop this from happening. Register for our virtual training and learn how to Win the Game of Fear. It’s a life-changing experience that will free you from worry, anxiety, and fear.

Unlearn Fear With REM Sleep

When you sleep, you go through different sleep cycles consisting of all kinds of brain waves. One of these phases is known as rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. It’s associated with vivid dreams and has been linked to reducing or removing fear from the brain.

REM sleep allows the parts of the brain that regulate fear to work properly. If a person is sleep-deprived, those regions don’t kick into action as well when exposed to fear triggers.

How REM Sleep Works

As you fall asleep, your brain first engages in other phases, collectively called non-REM sleep, and will cycle through these stages several times during the night. Your first bout of REM sleep occurs within 90 minutes after falling asleep.

Initially, REM sleep only goes on for about 10 minutes. Each REM stage then becomes longer and longer throughout the night. The final one might even continue for an hour.

During REM sleep, your brain is highly active, as it processes different memories, events, and stimuli. Your eyes move rapidly in all kinds of directions, the brain uses more oxygen, and you experience physiological changes like increased heart rate.

Benefiting From REM Sleep

Getting sufficient REM sleep enables your brain to recover from all the things it's exposed to during the day. It helps the brain to distinguish between rational and irrational fears so that you don’t react to everything.

REM sleep improves your coping skills, as the different regulating networks in the brain get to rest and recover. Your mood improves when you get a good amount of REM sleep, and your emotional reactions become more logical.


Fear Is Important

Fear and the brain go hand in hand because you need it for survival. There are times when you experience real threats to your life. If you don't have a fear response, then you cannot react accordingly, so you don’t want to eradicate fear entirely—you only need to control it.

Fight or Flight

Your brain has many different parts that each function in unique ways. The temporal lobes are responsible for regulating emotions like joy, sadness, and stress.

When you encounter a scary situation, your temporal lobes jump into action. The amygdala, a small section in the lobes, picks up on the stress you experience and releases adrenalin to cope with the situation.

Adrenalin forces your body to expend energy on fighting the stressor and prevents you from using energy for rational thoughts. Emotions overwhelm logical thinking which causes fight-or-flight reactions.

Distinguishing Between Fears

Fight-or-flight reactions are crucial for survival because your brain doesn’t want you to die. It must react, but these reactions aren’t always suitable, especially if the fear isn’t even real in the first place.

Yes, your fear could be fake. If your fear is irrational like when it pops up when you are only thinking about something, then your life isn’t in danger. There is no reason for your brain to go into this state.

When your reaction to irrational fear is stress, you allow your emotions to take control. This prevents you from thinking clearly and identifying your thoughts as irrational. It’s a situation you need to address.


Learn the Difference

Differentiating between real and irrational fear can be challenging. Luckily, you don’t have to figure it out on your own. To Win the Game of Fear, we explain all these concepts and give you the tools to overcome and unlearn your fears. Sign up today.

Control Your Fears

Irrational fear stops you from reaching your full potential. When you are afraid of something, your mind starts to associate stress with it—even if it doesn’t make sense. This can stop you from exploring new opportunities or taking risks that have a good probability of positive outcomes.

You have to control your fears, specifically the fake ones, if you want to do better and live a fulfilling life.

Distribute Your Energy

You need energy for everything you do—you need it to breathe, to think, to do physical exercise, and to deal with fear. How you use your energy is your choice, but it’s best to put it into constructive thoughts and activities. You need to decide, as soon as you feel anxious, to reroute your energy into overcoming fear and thinking logically.

You have to restore your energy daily and do so through what you eat and getting rest. Ensure you maintain a nutritious diet that boosts your energy and get sufficient sleep for your brain to recover from the worries of the day.

How to Overcome Fear

At NeuroGym, we believe the best way to deal with fear is by changing the way you think about it. Everything comes down to your brain and how you use it.

Become more aware of your emotions and what you are afraid about. You aren’t letting your feelings run rampant; you are simply acknowledging that they exist without reacting to them.

Many times, your fear comes from your inner critic. Once you are aware of your emotions and what that voice is saying to you, dissociate from it. Accept that it is a part of you, but it doesn’t define you, so stop listening to it.

Finally, you need to reframe your fear entirely. Start by recognizing negative thoughts without judging them. Reframe these thoughts and emotions so that they reflect positivity. Release all negative emotions, then retrain your brain by repeating an affirmation to show you are doing well.


Win the Game of Fear

You can overcome and unlearn your fears simply by training your brain to react differently. During our free virtual training, we will show you all the techniques you need to get control of your fears. Even better, you will learn how to replace it with productive strategies so that you can thrive in challenging times.

About The Author

NeuroGym Team

NeuroGym Team: NeuroGym’s Team of experts consists of neuroscientists, researchers, and staff who are enthusiasts in their fields. The team is committed to making a difference in the lives of others by sharing the latest scientific findings to help you change your life by understanding and using the mindset, skill set and action set to change your brain.

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