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Is it better to sleep it off or never go to bed angry?

Posted December 14, 2016

Erin Stewart writes about a study that says sleeping off angry feelings may not be a good thing. (Deseret Photo)

I grew up in a family that firmly believed in the old adage, “Never go to bed angry.” This meant we sometimes had late nights talking out our issues with each other, but by the time we turned out the light, we were at least on our way toward making amends.

Then, I got married. My husband is a firm believer in the sleep-it-off method. Rather than stay up and hash out hurt feelings and disagreements when we are tired and already upset, he believes it’s best to endure a night with me shooting some serious hostility rays at his side of the bed in the hopes that by the time we wake up in the morning, we won’t even remember why we were mad in the first place.

To be honest, this sometimes works well, like when I’m upset for a ridiculous reason and taking a step back helps me see that I’m just as much at fault or that it’s really just not that big of a deal.

But other times, sleeping it off is a major fail. Rather than waking up chipper, I’m usually just more angry the next morning.

And now … (drum roll please) … science is on my side!

A new study published in Nature Communications shows that going to bed angry does actually engrave these bad feelings in our minds. The brain moves newly acquired information into long-term memory during sleep, so negative feelings and memories experienced before bedtime were much harder for participants to suppress after sleeping.

I think many women are with me on the not-going-to-bed-angry side of the issue. We like to get things resolved when the issue is at its worst. We can only truly move on once we’ve talked it out.

On the other side, I think for many men, there is a more of a retreat-into-the-man-cave kind of impulse to avoid the issue, skip the talk and magically wake up to a happy wife with no memory of why they were so steamed the night before.

Well, at least according to this study, that is very unlikely. Maybe my mother had it right all those years to make us talk things out so we didn’t go to bed mad, my little brain working overtime to store up all my anger over important issues like that one time I clearly said, “I get my seat back,” and my sister blatantly denied hearing me so I had no choice but to sit on her head. Perhaps we are friends now as adults because my mother made us talk out even our most ridiculous fights.

In a marriage, though, there are times to just call it quits for the night. For example, when it’s late and you’ve been talking in circles about who did what and you’re drudging up that one time he left his clothes 3 inches from the laundry basket because you can’t think of anything else but you’re not about to let him have the last word, it’s probably time for some shut-eye. And I strongly believe there is no need to air every little grievance before saying goodnight.

But the next time my husband suggests we “sleep it off” when I am itching to talk it out now, I may casually remind him that while he’s sleeping soundly, my brain will be hard at work all night organizing my bad feelings into nice, easy-to-reference long-term memories.

That’s science, baby, pure and simple. So prop up your pillow and let’s get to talking so we can both actually sleep it off.

Are you a never-go-to-bed angry or sleep-it-off kind of family?

Erin Stewart is a regular blogger for Deseret News. From stretch marks to the latest news for moms, she discusses it all while her daughters dive-bomb off the couch behind her and her newborn son wins hearts with his dimples.

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