20 August 2015
Rumination (the process of repetitive thoughts often but not always about a negative situation) is a common, if not universal human process. Most of us will have had the experience of finding it difficult to let go of certain types of thoughts at some point in our lives – perhaps things that are known unknowns like an upcoming business presentation or perhaps something in the recent past such as when one partner said something in the heat of an argument that really hurt the other, but was based on a level of truth both recognized.
What we know is that during the day, as we learn new things, a new connection forms in our brains between one nerve cell and another. As we sleep, this connection is strengthened forming a memory of the thing we learned while we were awake. This is very useful to know if, for example, you are studying and choose to do some trial answers in your head as you begin to drift off to sleep. However, what might be even more useful is to know that if you have traumatic memories or events it is a really good idea not to dwell on these issues before going to sleep because, if you do, this will tend to enforce the memory and strengthen the emotional fear response attached to it. Turning the results of this research on its head we can see that by attending to, and dwelling on, some of the positive memories and events of the day we can, for ourselves, cement and bolster positive experiences instead.1
So, just before you go to bed why not select a number of positive things you experienced during the day. Even simple things – e.g. reminding yourself how great the walk back from work was in the sun – will do and let your brain consolidate the positive memory and affect while you sleep. Sweet dreams!
1 Dr Hannah Critchlow, BBC Radio 4 ‘How to Have a Better Brain’ Sleep Ep4