The science behind “don’t go to bed mad” – Sleep strengthens negative memories, according to new research

“Don’t go to bed angry.” It’s a piece of advice married couples often hear, but does this actually have any scientific basis? According to several studies, it does because going to bed while you’re upset can strengthen negative memories.

Sleeping while angry may aggravate any negative memories you might have, making them harder to reverse when you wake up the next day. (Related: Release Anger From your Subconscious Mind.)

Researchers say that the human brain is “hardwired to linger over negative memories,” and these memories can strengthen while we sleep. Earlier studies suggest that emotions, sounds, and other stimuli that our mind associates with particular events can help improve our recollections of them.

This was tested by researchers at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Centre in Boston, who worked with a group of 57 volunteers. The participants were shown a series of different images in each eye, where one image showed a neutral scene while another showed an unpleasant one.

Since each eye is linked to a separate half of the brain, the human mind can process the emotional impact independently. After looking at the electrical activity of the brain, the researchers determined that emotional scenes which evoked negative reactions were “localized” in one hemisphere.

The volunteers were then asked to recall the images 12 hours later. The first half of the participants slept while the second group stayed awake. The participants who went to bed recalled more negative emotional scenes compared to those who stayed awake, and the second group recalled almost the same number of negative and neutral images.

Roy Cox, a research fellow at the center and the study’s lead author, told The Times,”This would provide an explanation of how sleep selectively stabilizes emotional memories.” While they haven’t been peer-reviewed, the findings were presented at the Neuroscience 2017 conference.

When presented with new and relevant information, humans can strengthen weak memories with emotions, and researchers say that this has something to do with the adaptive nature of human memory.

A 2015 study looked into how the brain remembers “emotionally arousing stimuli” like suggestive imagery or certain traumatic events. The study focused on how the September 11 terrorist attacks in America affected memory retention. The researchers found out that emotions can increase our ability to remember by influencing activity in the brain regions that deal with emotional processing. The amygdala, striatum, and the hippocampus (which is one of the regions involved in encoding new experiences), were significantly affected.

An emotion can also increase the strength of memories over time through a process called consolidation. While a strong emotion can strengthen memory for positive events like a marriage proposal or a surprise birthday party thrown by loved ones, this can also happen with negative events like doing something embarrassing at a party.

Tips to deal with anger

Now that you know how negative emotions can affect sleep and your recollection of negative memories, try some of these tips to deal with anger:

  • Think before saying anything — When you’re angry, you can say hurtful things. Think before you speak, especially during an argument.
  •  Calm down before talking about why you’re mad — Take a deep breath, then calmly discuss what made you angry. Be assertive, but don’t antagonize the other person.
  • Consider taking a timeout — Even adults can benefit from a “timeout.” If you’re stressing out over something at work, take a coffee break or go outside for a calming walk. Don’t lose your temper over an issue that can easily be dealt with when you’re not as frustrated.
  •  Release tension with humor — When you find yourself in a heated discussion, try to tell a joke to diffuse the anger you may be feeling. But refrain from using sarcasm, which can make things worse.

You can read more articles about sleep and emotions and how they can affect your mental health at

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