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Fear Reducing During Sleep

Sleep Away Your Fear

Could it be possible to reduce phobias by exposing the brain to cues that trigger a fearful response while sleeping? New research states it could be. The researchers at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine conducted a study that reduced anxiety in a group of participants by exposing them to odors linked with their phobias.[1] Although the study results were small, researchers state that the finding is significant and could lead to future enhancement of the treatment of phobias during sleep.1

A Study on Sleep and Fear

FearResearchers created fear in participants’ minds through conditioning them to a certain image.1 A mild electric shock was given to them when they were shown a particular facial expression.1 At the same time, an odor was released.1 Over time, participants began to show a fearful response to the image and the associated odor.1 A functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) was used to scan the brain for changes in the regions associated with fear.1 Changes were there.1

During sleep, participants were exposed to the odors associated with their phobia.1 As the brain consolidates memories during sleep, the odor triggered the brain to react.1 Brain scans at that point showed that the brain regions linked with memory and emotion changed when the odor was introduced during sleep.1 However, when the participants awoke and were shown the fearful image, their level of anxiety was lower than before.1 For those who slept the longest, the least level of anxiety was seen.1

The odor reactivated the memory of the fearful face over and over again, creating a process similar to that of fear extinction during exposure therapy.1 Researchers concluded that multiple sessions of the odor therapy has the potential to heal a phobia completely.1

Extinguishing the Fear Response

In fact, many who have survived traumatic events have a physiological response to the triggers of their memories, including smells.1 Therefore, subjecting them to these smells during slow-wave sleep could help to extinguish their fear response.1



[1] Fear can be reduced during Sleep, Study Finds. (2013, September 23). Nature World News. Retrieved September 23, 2013, from http://www.natureworldnews.com/articles/4103/20130923/fear-reduced-during-sleep-study-finds.htm

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