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Something disturbing you? Don't sleep on it

health-and-fitness Updated: Jan 24, 2012 12:01 IST

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Going to sleep soon after a traumatic event, such as witnessing an accident, might lock in bad memories and emotions, a new study suggests.

Researchers from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst asked 106 healthy men and women to rate their emotional responses to a series of images, some depicting unsettling scenes. Then half of the subjects slept during the break, the other half did not. Twelve hours later, they again rated the images.

"Not only did sleep protect the memory, but it also protected the emotional reaction," said Rebecca Spencer, a neuroscientist and co-author of the study published this week in the Journal of Neuroscience.

sleepAccording to The Guardian in the UK, the study contradicts previous studies that "claim that sleeping helps us take the edge off negative emotions and view them from a more rational perspective."

"It's true that sleeping on it is usually a good thing to do," Spencer told ABC News, citing evidence that sleep boosts memory and other cognitive functions.

"It's just when something truly traumatic or out of the ordinary happens that you might want to stay awake."

Spencer also adds that the body's biological response after trauma might actually be healthy, in that many people find it difficult to sleep or do not want to sleep after a traumatic event. Spencer's advice is to perhaps consider a period of insomnia rather than rely on sleeping medication to get through a rough patch.

Still, she adds that while the findings may have implications for post traumatic stress disorder, the emotional toll of daily life shouldn't promote sleep deprivation.

"Just because we have a bad day doesn't mean we should stay awake," she said.

"We need to maintain some memories and emotional context to know what to avoid. We do learn something from them."