Can Sleep be Used to Erase Fears?

Jay Gottfried a senior researcher for this study on sleep and the memories of fear, is quoted for saying to the extent, that we form memories more strongly during sleep. The study by Gottfried and his associates had to do with getting subjects to unlearn fears during their sleep. First, using by conditioning, they paired two pictures of faces with painful electric shocks to volunteers, (seriously who volunteers for this?). During the experiment, certain odors also accompanied the faces seen, while receiving electric shocks.

 

Then they later introduced the subjects to the faces which they had seen while been shocked. Gottfried and associates noted that the subjects experienced fear upon seeing these faces, which were measured through sweat and other physiological responses. The next stage of the experiment involved getting the subject to unlearn their fear of at least one of the faces. This was done by introducing subjects to the specific odors during deep sleep, they had been introduced to while seeing faces paired with the odors and receiving electric shocks.

 

The result, subjects stopped eliciting physiological fear responses to certain faces, whose paired odor they had smelled in their sleep. They also had no memory of being reintroduced to the odors in their sleep. So if a face of Denzel Washington was paired with a lemon scent while receiving electric shocks, then being introduced to a lemon scent in deep sleep without electric shocks, led to the brain learning to no longer fear Denzel Washington’s face.

 

I have written before about how sleep promotes learning, and I even have some cognitive strategies which  I have  introduced to clients to practice fifteen minutes before bed time so as to increase the likelihood of their learning the strategies in their sleep to get them past specific issues. I will be introducing this strategy to readers in my coming ebook on how to end panic attacks.

 

So the idea that sleep can be used to unlearn fears is a phenomenon that I have believed in for some time. However for sufferers of panic attacks, what type of fear needs to be unlearned? In a previous post in which I debunked two common myths of panic attacks, I spoke about how panic attacks are related to ongoing small traumas,  we have become conditioned to create for ourselves.

An example would be growing up with an abusive parent and finding yourself in an abusive relationship as an adult. While the idea of being with an abusive partner may not be sufficient to provoke a panic attack, the idea of being unloved or unlovable certainly is.

The proposed point is this, perhaps panic attacks are triggered by the perception of never ending suffering?

 

So in the absence of an understanding of what triggers a person’s panic attack, a simple fear to work on are the reoccurring panic attacks themselves. Think about it, how much of a relief would it be to a panic attack sufferer to be able to experience panic attacks without fear?

Out of curiosity, for those who struggle with panic attacks, what type of fears do you relate to your panic episodes?

 

Ugo is a psychotherapist and life coach.

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