Ingeborg van Teeseling

Six Researchers Look to Put Sleep Disorders to Bed

We’ve long treated trauma-emboldened sleep disorders by treating the trauma. A pioneering group of researchers believe that we should do the opposite.


Small babies are instruments of torture. When you are around one for a while, you don’t understand how the human race has managed to survive for this long. It is not so much the stinky poo or the crying or the incessant need for their mother’s body that is the problem. It is the fact that they keep their parents awake.

I love my new granddaughter to bits, but I can see the effect of her needs on her parents: not only are they bleary-eyed, but they are also cranky and short-tempered and cry at the drop of a hat. When I tell my friends here about their predicament, most of them visibly shudder. They remember that time well from when they were new parents: the dark nights, of the soul as well, when you pace around with a crying child and all you can think about is some shuteye.

Especially if you aren’t getting any, you realize how vital sleep is to your life and well-being. In fact, I recently heard about some groundbreaking research that shows just how important it is.

For the Netherlands Institute of Neuroscience, Oti Lakbila-Kamal, Jennifer Ramautar, Diederik Stoffers, Frans Schalkwijk, and Eus Van Someren looked at the link between what they call good sleep and mental disorders. They were led by Rick Wassing, who is poised to start the rest of his promising sleep-research career at the Woolcock Institute of Medical Research in Sydney. This is what they found.

If something bad or scary happens to us, our brain responds. It is especially a small part of it, the amygdala, that becomes activated. That is fine, by the way, that is how it is supposed to be. But for our brain to repair itself and calm down, the amygdala needs to be switched off after the incident is over. Normally sleep makes this happen, especially during the REM part of it, when rapid eye movement takes place and we dream most vividly.

During those dreams, the researchers say, memory traces of our experiences are played back like a movie. And that helps to adapt our brain circuits: our memories find a settled place in our brain, the sting of them is removed, and we are fresh and ready to face another day. Often, even one night of good sleep, with the right amount of REM in it, will do the trick. And the better we sleep, the less problematic our bad experiences turn out for us.


One of the reasons why this research is revolutionary, is because so far we have presumed that bad sleep is the consequence of trauma, anxiety, or other mental problems. [This research shows] that it is probably the other way around.


The interesting thing is that Wassing and his colleagues also found that that means that bad sleepers drag their traumas around for much longer because something goes wrong in their REM sleep. Their amygdala keeps firing and, as a consequence, the experiences keep repeating themselves in their brain over and over again. Instead of processing emotions, they seem to sear themselves into the memory bank. And the more they do that, the worse it gets. Disturbed REM sleep and a hyperactive amygdala are what most people with PTSD, anxiety, depression, and insomnia have in common.

Of course, there are sometimes real traumas that we have to deal with. But if we sleep well, the chance those will not turn into a long-term problem are much better than if we suffer from that restless REM. It is not that sleep makes us forget. On the contrary, it makes it possible for us to remember, but remember, well, with less shame or pain. And when something else happens, there will be a space for that, instead of it getting on top of a whole heap of already festering flotsam and jetsam.

One of the reasons why this research is revolutionary, is because so far we have presumed that bad sleep is the consequence of trauma, anxiety, or other mental problems. Wassing, Schalkwijk, and Van Someren are showing that it is probably the other way around.

All of us experience bad things, but only in people who are bad sleepers do those bad things potentially turn into disorders. Think about the magnitude of that discovery for a moment. PTSD, anxiety, depression, and insomnia together comprise two-thirds of mental issues in the world today.

For most people who suffer from them, bad sleep is part of their illness. So far, we have tried to improve the sleep by trying to improve the anxiety or depression. And we have found that that is very, very difficult. But what if we can diminish the mental disorder by making sure people get some good sleep?

Helping people sleep is much easier than solving their mental problems.

So, if the Dutch researchers are right, we suddenly have a promising way of improving illnesses that have stumped us for generations.

They are not saying that, of course. They are scientists, they could never do that. But there is hope here for a lot of people.


Ingeborg van Teeseling

After migrating to Australia from Holland ten years ago and being warned by the Immigration Department against doing her job as a journalist, Ingeborg van Teeseling became a historian instead. She is writing a book and runs Lifebooks, telling people's life stories.

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