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Can you tackle fears while you sleep?

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I was intrigued by new research suggesting that we can overcome anxieties as we sleep. The small study, published online last week in the journal Nature Neuroscience, found that fears could be reduced by repeatedly exposing people to the memory of the trauma during sleep.

How did researchers do it? By exposing subjects in the study to smells associated with their anxieties. Fifteen healthy young adults received mild electric shocks while seeing two faces — basically teaching their brains to fear the two faces — while also inhaling one of two distinct odors associated with each face. When the volunteers were sleeping, one of the odors was continuously pumped into their room, and when they woke up they had less fear of the face associated with that odor.

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The Northwestern University researchers said they believe this is because of a form of “exposure therapy” used to treat post-traumatic stress disorder and other anxiety conditions during waking hours.

But we can take steps to overcome more common everyday anxieties centered around sleep itself. Many of us worry we’re not getting enough and this can aggravate insomnia. A solution, experts say, is to simply stop obsessing and to remind yourself that everyone has a few bad nights occasionally.

Deborah Kotz can be reached at dkotz@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @debkotz2.
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