Background: Sleep benefits memory consolidation. Here, we tested the beneficial effect of sleep on memory consolidation following exposure psychotherapy of phobic anxiety.
Method: A total of 40 individuals afflicted with spider phobia according to DSM-IV underwent a one-session virtual reality exposure treatment and either slept for 90 min or stayed awake afterwards.
Results: Sleep following exposure therapy compared with wakefulness led to better reductions in self-reported fear (p = 0.045, d = 0.47) and catastrophic spider-related cognitions (p = 0.026, d = 0.53) during approaching a live spider, both tested after 1 week. Both reductions were associated with greater percentages of stage 2 sleep.
Conclusions: Our results indicate that sleep following successful psychotherapy, such as exposure therapy, improves therapeutic effectiveness, possibly by strengthening new non-fearful memory traces established during therapy. These findings offer an important non-invasive alternative to recent attempts to facilitate therapeutic memory extinction and consolidation processes with pharmacological or behavioral interventions.