Have you heard the sayings that “you should not go to sleep arguing with your partner” or “not take your anger to bed”? It turns out they are based on strong scientific arguments. During sleep, our brain not only strengthens negative memories but also makes it difficult to remove them from memory.
Anger is like canned food
Who of us has not fallen asleep with his back to his partner after an argument or quarrel, at least once? We all have times when it feels difficult to compromise, and sometimes different opinions make it impossible to reach a consensus. Such a situation most often ends with screams, grievances and loudly pronounced regret. What is happening in our brain if we take this into sleep? Bad feelings do not disappear during night, instead, they last!
Research published by the scientific journal Nature Communications confirms that the method of “sleeping through your anger” not only does not work but also harms:
During sleep, the brain reorganizes the way negative memories are stored, making them more difficult to erase from memory in the future, says Yunzhe Liu of Beijing University, lead author of the study.
The experiment conducted as part of this study tested how effectively we can suppress negative memories. First, 73 volunteers were shown pairs of photos. One showed a neutral human face, and the other showed disturbing images, e.g. wounded, corpse, crying children, etc. In the next step, students were only shown pictures of the faces and were asked to actively think about the traumatic picture previously assigned to them or to consciously avoid thinking about them (depending on the group).
It turned out that those whose task was to forget about pairs of pictures after 30 minutes had a problem with their correct matching! However, when the memory suppression session was conducted after a good night’s sleep, students remembered it much more often.
The study of students’ brain activity was carried out using functional magnetic resonance imaging, and they additionally showed that the newly acquired memories were concentrated first in the hippocampus, the brain’s memory centre, but overnight spread to other structures of the cerebral cortex.
Forget, don’t dwell
What can we conclude from this? It is simply better to forget than to remember, and the sleep will then be our ally. If we go to bed full of frustration, regret and anger, our brain begins to send these emotions deeper, leading to their escalation and postponement of resolution. The domino effect can be compared to the grains of sand that fall apart in different directions during a desert storm, forming hills. These hills are growing problems that after some time during the encountered adversities will obscure our rational thinking and upset our emotional balance.
To sum up: it is really best to sleep with problems so that the brain finds new solutions for us, but in case of anger and frustration, we have to work through them (or at least try to erase them) before we enter the bedroom. Importantly, these processes should not be confused!