November 21, 2023

What Do Dreams Say About Your Mental Health? Theories and Studies

by | Nov 21, 2023 | Sleep

It’s believed that everyone dreams for about two hours each night, even if you don’t remember your dreams. It’s also common to have numerous dreams each night, with the average dream lasting only between 5-20 minutes (1).

The most intense and memorable dreams happen during the REM (rapid eye movement) stage of sleep. People experience REM cycles every 90-120 minutes, and some studies indicate that there’s an association between dreaming and the duration of time spent in REM sleep (2).

Common Dream Theories

People have been musing about dreams throughout history, with the first recorded dream dating back to Mesopotamian civilization. Today, dreams are emphasized in nearly every medium of art, from movies to song lyrics to books. 

Dreams represent a subject of fascination across all ages, demographics, and cultures. Young children may scream out and cry when they have a nightmare. Adults may try to go back to sleep after waking from a particularly mesmerizing dream to re-experience the scene.

Although no study can fully confirm why we dream, these are some of the most prevailing theories:

Dreams May Indicate Unmet Needs

The founder of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud, stated, “The interpretation of dreams is the royal road to a knowledge of the unconscious activities of the mind.” In other words, he postulated that dreams revealed unconscious motives and desires (3). 

Recurring dreams, in particular, may signify that someone is processing an unmet need. For example, if you often dream about showing up to school only to realize you didn’t prepare for an important exam, it could mean that you need a greater sense of stability or organization in your life.

Dreams Can Help People Tap Into Deeper Creativity

It’s not uncommon for an artist to cite a dream as the source of inspiration for a beautiful poem or groundbreaking intervention. 

Elias Howe, the founder of the sewing machine crafted his idea after dreaming that cannibals were getting ready to cook him alive. The cannibals had spears with holes in the tips, which motivated him to try passing thread through the needlepoint instead of at the end (4). 

Dreams connect abstract content and seemingly unrelated topics in a way that makes coherent sense. It’s estimated that your brain is, therefore, most creative and innovative when you’re asleep. If you can pay close attention to certain topics in your dream, you may become more creative about those topics as a result.

Dreams Support Processing Essential Information 

The brain continuously works to make sense of various signals, even when we’re asleep. 

Activation-synthesis theory suggests that dreams happen due to neurons firing and creating 

brain activity. The content and sequencing of this activity are affected by numerous chemicals that are always evolving, and those changes may trigger the brain to bring up memories during dreams (5). 

Dreams Remind You to Stay Alert and Proactive

From an evolutionary standpoint, the concept of nightmares can seem confusing. Why would our brains imagine such destructive scenes on a whim?

Dreams may aim to safeguard human survival. During a nightmare, for example, your brain might imagine hazardous situations, which can prepare you to better protect yourself in real life. This can lead to more adaptive critical thinking and decision-making.

Dreams May Support Memory Storage

The emotional regulation dream theory posits that dreams help facilitate the brain to store important memories. Sleep itself is essential for this function, but dreams may act as a way to seal the information. 

This is why it’s often recommended that people studying for an important exam get a full night’s sleep. Instead of staying up all night and cramming more information, your brain is more likely to consolidate and remember what’s most important when it’s rested. 

Dreams May Not Have a Specific Reason 

It’s important to note that dream theories are subjective, and some mental health experts and researchers alike agree that dreams may not have an inherent purpose. Instead, dreams may just be a product of random brain activity that can’t be coherently analyzed. 

How Are Dreams Connected to Your Mental Health?

Mental health is a broad term that includes how we think, feel, act, and carry ourselves in the world. Poor mental health is associated with experiencing issues in daily life, ranging from relationship problems to low self-esteem to compulsive habits.

Dreams affect everyone differently. Some people remember their dreams often, whereas others may report that they never dream. But it’s likely that people with mental health conditions are more likely to have bad dreams or nightmares. Recurrent nightmares, in particular, may have roots in conditions like PTSD, major depression, and generalized anxiety disorder. It can also be a core feature of psychosis.

What Causes Vivid Dreams?

Even though we dream every night, it’s rare to wake up remembering them all. In fact, it’s estimated that people forget anywhere from 90-99% of their dream content just after waking. Dreams may be challenging to recall because the activity occurring during sleep doesn’t adapt to how the brain consciously processes and stores memories. In addition, neurotransmitter levels change throughout the night, which can affect memory recall.

But sometimes dreams can be so vivid that you might feel disoriented for several minutes or even hours in the morning. It’s almost as if you can’t believe the dream wasn’t real. Other times, the dreams are so memorable that they stay with you for many months or years. 

Medications: Vivid dreams are a side effect of numerous medications, including beta blockers, antipsychotics, antidepressants, sleep aids, and antibiotics. Sometimes the vivid dreams occur just after starting the medication, but other times, they can persist (6).

Substance Use: Drugs or alcohol may trigger vivid dreams and nightmares. Withdrawing from these substances can also coincide with vivid dreams, as your brain is rapidly adjusting to a dramatic change in functioning.

Pregnancy: Many pregnant women report vivid dreams throughout their pregnancy. This may be due to the fluctuating hormones experienced during this time.

Mental health disorders: Depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, and bipolar disorder can all be associated with vivid dreams. If your symptoms feel particularly exacerbated, you may notice that your dream content feels more intense than usual.

What Are Some Common Universal Themes in Dreams?

Even though each dream is inherently unique and nuanced, common themes prevail across humanity.

Free falling or falling down: Falling dreams are often terrifying. People may experience a scary plunge like falling off a tall building or experiencing the ground falling out from below them. Other times, there’s a sense of free falling in space. This type of dream may indicate a loss of control or support. It could also mean needing to let go of something in your waking life.

Discovering you’re naked: This classic dream often entails recognizing that you aren’t wearing any clothes in a public setting, such as school or work. This leaves a feeling of vulnerability and exposure, which may speak to something that evokes shame for you in daily life. However, this dream may also speak to having a sense of confidence about a strength of yours.

Having sex: It’s common to dream about having sex, whether that’s with your partner or with someone else. You might wake up feeling anything from excited to confused to disgusted after having this kind of dream. It’s important to remember that dreaming about having sex with someone doesn’t inherently mean you harbor that secret desire. It could simply mean that you admire a trait that person has or something in your relationship with that person is affecting you.

Losing your teeth: This is another typical dream, and it can include the act of teeth falling out or merely discovering you don’t have your teeth. This dream may indicate the sense of losing something of value (i.e. youth, money, self-esteem, an important relationship). It may also speak to communication difficulties. 

Being chased: Being chased is a typical dream, and it’s also a dream that many young children experience. Some dream theorists believe that this dream represents either the desire to escape something or coming to terms with something catching up to you.

Someone dying: Death dreams can be frightening, particularly when they seem so vivid or disturbing. Dreaming about death may mean that you’re experiencing some form of grief (even if that grief isn’t about an actual death). It may also mean that you’re going through some significant transition, such as moving or enduring a breakup. 

Should You Try to Control Your Dreams?

Dreams can be confusing and distressing, causing people to want to try to control what happens when they’re asleep. Likewise, pleasant dreams can feel so enjoyable that it’s only natural to want to improve the likelihood of having more positive experiences.

Here are some tips that can help improve the quality of your dreams at night:

Lucid dreaming: Some people practice lucid dreaming, which refers to proactively attempting to control dreams. Lucid dreaming requires the awareness that you are dreaming. When that happens, you may be able to insert yourself into your dream to control your responses. Research shows that lucid dreaming may be the result of a combined state of consciousness with REM sleep (7). With that, it’s rare for people to lucid dream consistently. 

Dream shifting: Dream shifting means thinking about something intentionally before falling asleep. This form of meditation may increase the chance of dreaming about that particular topic that night.

Avoiding triggering content: It’s also helpful to be mindful of the content you consume before bedtime. Reading sad stories, watching scary movies, or having an intense conversation with a loved one can all pull at your emotions. It may be challenging to process everything before you fall asleep, and you may be more likely to revisit those emotions in your dreams. 

Optimizing your bedtime routine: Insomnia and fragmented sleep may affect dream quality. It’s important to establish a consistent and effective sleep routine. Try to fall asleep and wake up around the same time each day. Avoid caffeine, alcohol, and heavy meals too close to bedtime. Invest in a high-quality mattress and bedding. If you find yourself waking up frequently, consider discussing your concerns with a doctor or therapist.  Sleep problems can be psychological, physical, or both, and getting the right treatment can make a significant difference. 

Final Thoughts

Dreams are one of the stranger and more mystical parts of being alive. But they are a universal part of the human experience, and they may reveal important insights about yourself, your needs, and your mental health. 

Sources

  1. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/11247053/ 
  2. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK11121/ 
  3. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3330585/
  4. https://www.bostonglobe.com/opinion/2018/03/23/the-undeferred-dreams-elias-howe-and-madame-walker/GA3ajqwnq4UiVoFe3HQERP/story.html 
  5. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/21570/ 
  6. https://www.goodrx.com/drugs/side-effects/medications-that-cause-nightmares-and-disturbing-dreams 
  7. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2737577/ 
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Disclaimer: This information is not specific medical advice and does not replace information you receive from your healthcare provider. This is only a brief summary of general information. It does NOT include all information about conditions, illnesses, injuries, tests, procedures, treatments, therapies, discharge instructions or lifestyle choices that may apply to you. You must talk with your health care provider for complete information about your health and treatment options. This information should not be used to decide whether or not to accept your health care provider’s advice, instructions or recommendations. Only your health care provider has the knowledge and training to provide advice that is right for you.

You must talk with your health care provider for complete information about your health and treatment options. This information should not be used to decide whether or not to accept your health care provider’s advice, instructions or recommendations. Only your health care provider has the knowledge and training to provide advice that is right for you.

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