Recently I was talking with someone who is having disturbing dreams, as he wants to understand why he is having them and what he can do to stop them. He also wanted to see if I could help him interpret what the dreams are about. While I am not a specialist in analyzing dreams, it got me thinking about dreams in general. We all have dreams (humans and animals alike), even if we don’t remember them, and they are of such significance to our ability to function well that scientists around the world study the mechanics and purpose of dreaming, and have started exploring how to manipulate our dream states to help with sleep disorders and mental health problems.
So why do we dream? No one has yet been able to provide a clear reason, but we do know that dreams are a way that the mind has of working through difficult experiences and feelings. Dreaming also seems to be an important part of memory processing, uniting past and present information that the brain has absorbed while preparing for the future. In general, paying attention to our dreams can give us insight into what is preoccupying us, and to who we are.
Dreams are part of how the brain processes what has been happening to us in our daily lives, and as such the majority of people we dream about are known to us in person or by their role. We also tend to dream about things that are related to us, such as our jobs or hobbies. Sometimes we dream about things immediately after they happen, but at other times there is a time-lag and the consolidation of memories happens with incomplete fragments that appear over time, much as if the brain were piecing together a jigsaw puzzle.
There are different kinds of dreams, such as nightmares, which are frightening dreams that can cause us to wake up or be fearful of going to sleep; recurring dreams which contain a repeating pattern; and lucid dreams, where brain activity is unusually high and we are aware that we are dreaming and can manipulate what we are dreaming about.
Just a with sleep, dreaming can be disrupted, and can be an indication of physical or mental health problems. Drugs and alcohol can alter our dream pattern for example, while people who are depressed are more likely to have nightmares. In fact, the relationship between dreaming and depression is particularly interesting, as people who are depressed tend to have excessive REM sleep, likely because they are more given to cognitive introspection and are more highly autonomically aroused, and dreams are linked to autonomic arousal. Excessive dreaming can be exhausting for the mind and body, and so some anti-depressant medication reduces dream sleep. This is a good reason why it is important to keep active and not give in to the urge to curl up and sleep when you are depressed.
It is not all bad news though, as dreams can be a rich source of creativity, providing inspiration for novel ideas or problem solving. Some people find it helpful to keep a pen and paper next to the bed so they can record their dreams immediately upon waking and take full advantage of the insight they gain from their brain activity while sleeping.
Dreams can be disturbing, enlightening, comforting and puzzling, but they are always fascinating insights into who we are, where we have been, and perhaps where we are going. Pay attention to your dreams and see what you learn about yourself.
If the subject matter in this article resonates with you, then counselling might be a good option to help you to move forward. I offer a free 20-minute consultation so we can explore how I might be able to help you.