How do dreams relieve depression?

Rosalind Cartwright, head of the Sleep Disorders Center, is confident that dreams are mood correctors that process negative emotions. That is why when we wake up, our mood is better than when we go to sleep. But if at night something went wrong, the mood in the morning is nowhere worse. This situation is common for people with depression. 

Dreams help us regulate emotional life and even get rid of depression. How exactly? This is what the book “The Brain in a Dream” tells.

Dreams and mood

A study of those who went through a marriage collapse demonstrates that the dream model of those who can cope with the consequences of divorce and move on is significantly different from the dream model of those who are depressed.

Cartwright dealt with this problem in the early 1960s – then she, who had just survived a divorce, set up her first laboratory: “I was depressed, could not sleep normally and thought: why not use insomnia to good use?”  

People with depression tend to constantly chew on bitter thoughts throughout the day. At night, they also play negative images of the past, thereby exacerbating the anxiety or fear that originally included the dream mechanism. And it is not surprising that they wake up in an even more depressed state.

Antidepressant Dreams

Long-term studies of the content of dreams have shown that negative emotions dominate in dreams. In 1991, scientists found that in reality people are more likely than in a dream to experience positive emotions. And vice versa: a sense of fear arises in dreams many times more often than during wakefulness. In general, 2/3 of the emotions that arise in dreams are negative. 

A study conducted in 1996 in a Swiss sleep laboratory suggests that negative emotions appear in dreams twice as often as positive ones, among these negative feelings the most typical are anger, fear and depression, tension. This predominance of negative emotions led Cartwright to suggest that during the REM phase, when we see the most complex, vivid dreams, the integration of emotional experiences occurs.

A cocktail of negative and positive emotions can be in proportion from 60/40 for someone who is in good emotional shape and whose day, as they say, went well, to 95/5 for someone who has faced many problems. These are the emotions that we have to process overnight to meet a new day with renewed vigor.

Depression, go away!

For its recent study, Cartwright recruited subjects who survived their first divorce. Subjects occasionally spent nights in the laboratory. They talked about their mood, going to bed, talked about the mood in which they woke up in the morning. They also regularly reported to Cartwright on how their family problems were resolved and how their general emotional state changed.

Final tests showed that 9 out of 12 people finally got rid of divorce-related symptoms of depression. 52% of those who recovered from depression talked about dreams that featured their previous spouses or scenes from married life; Of those whom depression still tormented (there were three), only 24% spoke of such dreams. 

It is noteworthy that those who recovered recalled their dreams twice as often as those who were still depressed. So, the ability to remember a dream also has a therapeutic effect.

Emotional Trigger

“Freud considered the subconscious mind to be something like a cesspool: the incompletely expressed emotions are kept in it in a depressed state, and the psychotherapist’s task is to release these toxic emotions and thereby free the person, ” says Joe Griffin, who has been studying the REM phase for more than ten years and the evolution of dreams. “ But research has clearly demonstrated that dreams do this every night.” In other words, nature invented the emotional trigger tank long before Freud    

Skeptics doubt: how can these brain-played night dramas help if we forget them right away? But scientists believe that the main thing is the creation and restructuring of connections in neural networks, the physiological process itself, which in some cases strengthens old memories, in others – builds new associations. So he weaves new experiences into our previous experience, updating the model of ourselves and the world around us.   

Such a nightly readjustment of connections corresponds to theories of the role of dreams in evolution: according to these theories, the brain integrates information important for survival during sleep. This happens whether we remember dreams or not.

Both correct psychotherapy and dreaming have the same effect: they allow in a safe environment to create connections between an alarming event and previous experience. As soon as they are established, the emotions become not so sharp and the trauma gradually dissolves in the patient’s life.

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