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Spindles: the sleep phase that can reduce anxiety symptoms

Hardly a day goes by without us emphasizing the importance of sleep for mental health, but did you know that a particular sleep phase can help alleviate anxiety in people with PTSD?

When you fall asleep, there is a phase where neural oscillatory activity is at its highest. This phase is known as sleep spindles. It's believed that during sleep spindles, memories are consolidated and the cortex develops.

Sleep spindles have been found to alleviate anxiety symptoms in people with stress and anxiety disorders. That's because stress increases your spindle rate when you sleep.

And guess what; sleep spindles only occur during NREM (non-rapid eye movement) sleep, that is when you're deeply asleep, "at peace." So, yes, one more benefit of getting a good night's sleep.

But how do sleep spindles help with anxiety?

Now, here's the interesting part.

Sleep spindles, anxiety, and stress

Sleep spindles are regularly generated every 3-6 seconds, as soon as you enter NREM sleep.

But in people who have recently experienced a traumatic scene, such as disturbing images of war violence and mutilated humans, spindles occur more frequently, according to a recent study. This increased spindle frequency reduces anxiety symptoms.

In the study, participants were exposed to disturbing images like accidents and mutilation.

Their anxiety levels were measured immediately after the exposure.

Then they were allowed to take a nap, which was monitored to see their brain activity — the spindles.

When they woke up, their anxiety levels were also measured while they recalled memories of the disturbing images. Anxiety was found to be lower after sleep.

There was also a control group that wasn't exposed to those disturbing images but also slept.

The spindle frequency was higher in the participants exposed to disturbing images, which reduced their anxiety symptoms.

The gory images served as stressors, precisely what people with PTSD and anxiety disorder go through. So, people who aren't experiencing stress or PTSD symptoms may not experience the change in sleep spindle frequency and the therapeutic effect it offers.

Can sleeping meds promote sleep spindles and reduce anxiety?

It's possible that interventions like sleeping meds can trigger the spindles associated with NREM sleep. But we cannot be sure at this time if medically-induced spindles will also generate the same brain processes that occur with natural spindles.


Whether or not sleep meds can help, one thing's for sure. Getting good sleep is the cheapest way to reduce anxiety and stress and improve your overall mental health. It costs zero dollars.

So, are you feeling stressed or super anxious? You don't have to keep at it. Getting a good nap ASAP may be all you need.

Satu H. Woodland, PMHCNS-BC, APRN Satu H. Woodland, PMHCNS-BC, APRN Satu Woodland is owner and clinician of Hope Mental Health, an integrative mental health practice located at Bown Crossing in Boise, Idaho. She sees children, adolescents, and adults.  Ms. Woodland with her background in nursing, prefers a holistic and integrative approach to mental health care that addresses the mind and body together. While Ms. Woodland provides medication management services in all her patients, she believes in long-lasting solutions that include a number of psychotherapies, namely cognitive behavioral therapy, exposure and response prevention therapy, attention to lifestyle, evidenced based alternative psychiatric care and spirituality. If you’d like to gain control over your mental health issues, call Hope Mental Health at 208-918-0958, or use the online scheduling tool to set up an initial consultation.

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