Have you ever had the same dream over and over again? Has this dream ever been bothersome enough for you to avoid going to sleep in order to avoid it? Has your dreaming ever caused your sleep to be disturbed? Is there anything that can be done about any of this? Before we talk about how you can impact your dreams, let’s talk about what dreams are and how they work. Despite extensive research in this area, many things about dreams remain “likely hypotheses” rather than proven facts. However, there are some things that we do know.
Most dreams occur during a stage of sleep known as Rapid Eye Movement (REM) Sleep. If you have ever watched someone sleep and noticed that their eyes appear to be moving under their eyelids, it is very likely that the person was dreaming. During this stage of sleep, the person’s brain looks like it is awake and active. For this reason, this stage of sleep is often called “paradoxical sleep.” The person spends more and more time in REM sleep as the night continues. Interestingly, unlike deep sleep, which the body “makes up” by producing deeper sleep instead of more sleep (see Understanding Sleep In Order to Have a Better Night), the body “makes up” REM sleep by devoting a larger percentage of sleep time to it after sleep deprivation. This is called REM Rebound. As a result of this alteration in sleep stages, the person will likely experience their sleep as disturbed. REM rebound is a common side effect of some sleep medication and alcohol, as alcohol suppresses REM sleep, so a rebound occurs once the alcohol wears off.
“But what are dreams?” One theory that has received a lot of support is that dreams are a narrative, pieced together by the brain, of different brain areas that were activated during the day. This narrative can combine very distant things. For example, you might have scheduled an appointment with the dog groomer and helped your child with their homework. That night you may have a dream about being a dog trainer. These connections are even more likely if there is a strong emotion attached to them. For instance, one symptom of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder is nightmares about the trauma. These dreams are a retelling of the story that not only was likely on the person’s mind all day long, but it is also related to extreme fear, which makes it more likely that it will be a dream the following night.
Have you ever had the same bothersome dream several nights in a row? When this happens, do you dread going to sleep because you are anticipating having this dream? Now that you know that dreams come from your day and your emotions, there is a way to deal with this problem. Please note, if you have a history of trauma, only do this with the help of a therapist. Immediately upon waking, note down as much about this dream as you can remember. Then, rewrite the story so that it is no longer so bothersome. For example, you might want to change the ending or the main character. Once your new story is written in as much detail as possible, you should practice reading this story to yourself as often as you can. After several days of practice, you are likely to notice that when this dream occurs, it occurs with the new ending. This technique is known as dream rehearsal.
Although many aspects of dreams remain unconfirmed, it has been confirmed that this is an important part of your sleep; important enough that if you lack it, your body will make it up. Furthermore, although dreams seem magical, they are driven by your emotions and experiences, so if they are producing things that you do not like, it may be worthwhile to look at what you are spending your day thinking about.