Deep Sleep and REM Are the Secret to Great Sleep (And Healing Trauma)

Everyone wants to help you sleep (for a price). We mythbust what works with an expert.

6 Minute ReadEducation by Matt Charlton


Everyone wants to help you sleep (for a price). Matt Charlton mythbusts what works with an expert.

There is a new goldrush happening. Thousands of prospectors are hurrying to them-there-hills in order to make their fortunes, and the prime real estate on which they’re attempting to stake their claim is situated somewhere between your Frontal Lobe and Cerebral Cortex.

From sleep retreats, via white noise machines, pillow sprays, sleeping earbuds, all the way to countless sleep-monitoring apps, the commoditisation of our slumber was well under way even before the pandemic. But then, sleep patterns were heavily disrupted by repeated lockdowns and unrelenting fear and stress - either constant fatigue and sleeping too much, or an interrupted waking nightmare, our bodies continually existing in fight or flight mode.  Catching your zeds, or someone helping you to catch more of them, became an increasingly attractive and rare prospect.

This post-pandemic rush has been mainly due to the severe disruption to our circadian rhythms over the past two years. Circadian rhythms are the physical, mental, and behavioural changes that follow a 24-hour cycle. At the most fundamental level, this can simply mean being awake during the day and sleeping at night. But it is so much more: including digestion, and the changes in cognitive behaviours at different times of day, such as decision making, creative thinking, and exercise. All these pieces were thrown up in the air with the pandemic, and sleep hygiene went out of the window as the routine of our lives disappeared almost overnight - some of us (me) even staying awake to make sure we could secure a delivery slot for online groceries. The ‘fight or flight’ response (which we all possess in order to react to stressful situations) went into overdrive - permanently on, usually peaking at around 5pm when Boris Johnson appeared on television in the Downing Street briefing room.

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The importance of REM sleep

A lot of slightly baffling terms have already been used in this piece - circadian rhythms; fight or flight; cognitive behaviours; sleep hygiene, Boris Johnson… and I can’t just keep cutting and pasting from WebMD or Wikipedia. To get a more scientific understanding of what sleep does for us psychologically, how our sleep-cycles have reacted to the pandemic, and an insight into this apparent bedtime goldrush, I spoke to Dr Dawn Clark, a Consultant Psychologist specialising in trauma.

In fact, trauma is a prime (if extreme) example of something which sleep helps us to process - it’s through the REM (Rapid Eye Movement) phase of sleeping where our brain attempts to make sense of our real world experiences. “Our brain activity fluctuates when we’re sleeping, and there are different stages which make up the sleep cycle”, says Clark. “So in NREM sleep - which is Non Rapid Eye Movement [or deep sleep] - brain activity slows down, but it often has short sharp energetic bursts, whereas REM sleep is that very rapid intense dreaming we have.” Each part of sleep, she says, has a very intricate role in brain health. “In mental health, we think about sleep as being bidirectional - sleep can be implicated in mental health disorders, but lack of sleep can itself cause forms of mental distress and mental disorder such as anxiety

So how does the REM part of sleep help assist the brain in its processing? Clark points out there’s more than one school of thought, but she tends to lean towards ‘Functional Memory Theory’. “We tend to think of it as an information processing system, and it’s almost like you’re downloading, however you will be doing that when you’re in both kinds of sleep activity,” she explains. “So you’re only processing parts, which is why we have that very strange lucid dreaming - but if we actually look at the dream, we’ll realise ‘oh, it’s because I went there that that happened, or four weeks ago I saw that’ and then these things get mixed.”

Hero dreaming

How does trauma affect sleep (and vice versa)?

How does this work then with something like trauma? When it’s unprocessed, does it linger in the wrong part of the brain - the part which should process it and store it elsewhere – and can the presence of ongoing or unresolved trauma be partly attributed to the quality of sleep not being sufficient?

“If I’m working on something like trauma focussed Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, it’s really important to psycho-educate people on sleep hygiene before we start,” explains Clark, “and the reason that we do that is because we think most people with PTSD are not reaching REM sleep, or if they are, they will experience night terrors, and wake frequently from that cycle.” So, much like force-crashing a computer when it’s in the middle of backing up, not allowing our brain to complete the task in hand can be highly damaging to our functionality.

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What to do in order to maintain good sleep hygiene

So far, we have talked about extreme cases such as trauma or its close cousin PTSD - recognised psychological disorders - but psychoeducation in sleep hygiene is equally important for everyday life. Especially since the pandemic, where our sleep patterns have been so heavily disrupted. “Sleep hygiene came along as part of the turn towards the psychoeducative - a person learning how their brain, nervous system, body, actually works, so they can understand and have some control over what’s happening to them,” says Clark.

She recommends that, when trying to find out what good sleep hygiene looks like for an individual, it’s important to find out what about a person, how easily they unwind, and what they find relaxing. “If I was talking to someone who worked in a bar ‘til 3am it would be really difficult to say ‘just get in a hot bath, you’ll be fine’. So, it’s about putting together a programme for the individual about their life and their needs.”

Which brings us back to the sleep goldrush - all of these remedies, solutions, ‘life-hacks to solve your sleep problems once and for all’ - there can’t possibly be a one-size-fits-all. “We can get very prescriptive about things,” Clark adds, “and if I’m saying to a patient ‘this is the best programme for sleep hygiene’, and it doesn’t fit with their work, the worst thing would be that someone [comes away from that] thinking ‘okay, my sleep problem can’t be helped’.”

Sleep hero

How to improve your sleep

It’s an easy sell - who wouldn’t want to invest in a better night’s sleep? We have all experienced the consequences of being sleep deprived, and we all know the feeling of at least one good night’s kip. It’s simple common sense - after a good night’s sleep we all feel better. With a pitch as easy as this, you can’t really blame the prospectors for moving in - if you’re desperate to sleep, you’ll try everything everybody recommends.

Saying that, however, there must be at least some basic tips if a thing such as sleep hygiene exists. Clark initially ventures lettuce soup, and I somewhat spoil the serious nature of our conversation by countering that you would wake yourself up with all the farting. “Really, it’s about having a quiet mind,” she concludes. This includes meditating for as little as five minutes, not going to bed on an argument or an assignment, and, above all, get those screens out of your room. No TVs, no phones, and if you’re reading this on your phone at 11:30pm? Turn it off in ten seconds, and put it on charge in another room.

Seriously, turn it off. The secret to good sleep could be as simple as letting your hard-drive de-frag.

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