Sleep is wonderful, beneficial, necessary, and honestly? A little weird! (see our blogpost outlining the benefits of sleep here. The weird thing about sleep is that mental imagery that we experience: dreams! Dreams are one of the things that isn’t fully understood by psychologists, however studies argue that they are tied with our mental health- that they are in some ways connected! Let’s dream about this possibility together:
Why do we dream?
Dreaming usually happens during REM (rapid eye movement) sleep, associated with creating long term memories, learning, and overall brain development. Again, there’s not a clear conclusion of why we dream, but some theories are as such:
Sigmund Freud, “father of psychoanalysis” argued that dreams were the mind’s opportunity to fulfill unconscious desires or wishes, allowing people to express things not appropriate during the day.
Another theory suggests that we dream to store memories. It’s argued that dreams help strengthen new memories, integrate them with old ones, and allow the brain to process and understand emotions, leading to storage of emotional memories.
More recently it's been suggested that dreams are what help the brain apply knowledge learned from past experience to the present, a process called generalizing. This theory additionally argues that because dreams are often out of the ordinary, it allows the brain to shift from memorizing details of a person's day to broadening their perspectives.
and lastly, some psychologists conclude that there’s actually no function to dreaming at all! They argue that dreaming is a feature of the sleeping brain that pulls memories and knowledge from the day with no necessary need.
the effects of dreams vary from person to person, where each person sees the importance of dreams differently. For example, some people value their dreams and strive to remember them, in order to interpret any meaning from them that could potentially inform their day to day lives.
In a more scientific sense, dreaming seems to be associated with the same parts of the brain that are in charge of regulating emotions, which lead to the belief that there is a connection between dreams and mental well being. This can be supported with the argument that emotions from dreams carry onto mood for the following day.
Some research suggests that people with mental health conditions experience dreams and nightmares more frequently, but the severity of certain mental health conditions may relate to how they react to them rather than how often they may experience them.
The spooky side of mental imagery during sleep, nightmares, are frightening dreams that cut a person’s sleep short. This causes people’s sleep quality to be negatively affected, and what’s worse is that nightmares are much easier to recall than dreams, negatively affecting mood for the following day. Nightmares could become frequent after a personal loss, substance withdrawal, during periods of stress, or after a traumatic experience.
At worst case scenarios, frequent nightmares plague as many as 20% of children and 6% of adults, leading to the potential diagnosis of a nightmare disorder, where persistent nightmares make it difficult to get through the day.
Mental health conditions with associated uptick in bad dreams:
Depression - increased risk of bad dreams and nightmares, twice as often as those without depression. People experiencing depression tend to enter REM sleep more quickly, potentially a reason for the increase in nightmares.
Anxiety - additionally associated with nightmares, at times they are so frequent they are deemed “dream anxiety attacks”. Those experiencing generalized anxiety disorder also report having regular bad dreams and nightmares.
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) - nightmares are a defining feature of PTSD, where a person experiencing PTSD may relive a traumatic episode through many ways, with dreaming and nightmares being one of the most prominent. PTSD dreams often contain emotions felt during traumatic experiences.
Psychosis & Schizophrenia - It’s often argued that dreams and psychosis could potentially be closely related, where they share underlying mechanisms. Over half of people experiencing psychotic disorders may also experience persistent nightmares. Those experiencing schizophrenia, a psychotic disorder, tend to have more bizarre dreams, and may struggle to differentiate dreams and reality.
Currently, the phenomenon of dreaming is still being researched and debated on. Regardless of that, if you find yourself being concerned about frequency or content of dreams, having trouble sleeping, or unexpected changes in mood, don’t hesitate to reach out to a doctor or mental health professional!
And if you don’t experience a mental health condition, seeing a mental health professional could still improve your mental health and well being overall, potentially leading to more pleasant dreams.