How Dreaming Impacts Health
"My friend’s going to return from a fishing trip with a full kreel" laughed one of our team members, quoting from a so-called dream dictionary recently… Somewhat improbably, that’s how the book interpreted the subject of his dream: a pelican! Dismissing it as nonsense, he went about his business with the feeling we all have from time to time: dreams can be weird…
Well, it’s true of course. Dreams certainly can be weird! But what if there’s actually a twisted logic to them? And what if – rather than portend to the future – they help process recent, unresolved emotions? Renowned psychologist Dr. Joseph Griffin believes this is the case and explains that – while we don’t fully understand dreaming – plenty of scientific evidence suggests that it impacts everything from learning, creativity and problem solving to anger, depression, psychosis, addiction and anxiety.
We know some folk take an odd pleasure in saying that they don’t dream and we don’t want to start a row about it… But, actually, it’s widely believed everybody dreams. That said, we’re quick to acknowledge that not everybody remembers their dreams – and nor are we necessarily supposed to. The reason for that may be connected to the answer to the next question…
Why Do We Dream?
Over the years there have been a few schools of thought about this including some creative but illogical thinking from Sigmund Freud… Carl Jung has weighed in on it as well, but nothing really made absolute sense to us until Joseph Griffin wrote his groundbreaking book, The Origin of Dreams.
What Does He Say?
That your dreaming brain creates metaphorical images to help you process unresolved emotional arousal. To put it another way: stuff you feel strongly about but don’t resolve during the day is likely to manifest itself as part of a dream at night.
So, for example, if you’re nervous about talking with a partner, and have no chance to express it, then that’s likely to be something your dreaming brain addresses… If, on the other hand, you were out shopping and a plastic bag spilt before you cussed and cursed and ranted about it, that probably wouldn’t need resolution. You see? Your emotional arousal over the shopping has been resolved: your partner-driven anxiety has not…
So What Do We Dream About?
This is what we find fascinating: you could dream about absolutely anything… Take our example of the pelican earlier. Where the dream dictionary gives an interpretation of that image, it’s inconceivable that this is what it really means… How could it?! The way you might feel about a pelican differs greatly from the way another person feels about a pelican!
One of our friends thinks pelicans are daft, funny looking things; silly and amusing… They make her laugh. Another friend – having seen a news report in which a pelican swallowed a pigeon – whole and still alive – thinks they’re greedy and vicious. If you accept that the images you dream are metaphorical symbols designed to help elicit and resolve emotions, you can probably imagine that these two people would have to have had totally different emotional experiences during the day to produce dreams that feature pelicans! This is the reason why dream dictionaries are such absolute nonsense even if some symbolism crosses over with your reality.
So How Does Dreaming Work?
Predominantly during periods of R.E.M. – Rapid Eye Movement sleep, which happen every 90 to 120 minutes of your slumber – your brain is highly active. Studies suggest that as well as continuing to ‘flush away’ the residue of unresolved emotions raised in your waking hours, the function of dreams may include consolidating memory, aiding conflict resolution and problem solving. There is, perhaps, a good reason that so many people really do feel better for having slept on a problem… It may be trite, true and scientifically valid!
Get It Off Your Chest
Another truism would seem to be that a problem shared is a problem halved – if not solved! If too much dreaming is associated with a condition like depression, as discussed below, then clearly sleep is necessary for far more than just holding fatigue at bay. So while you can check out our Info Sheet on sleeping, keep in mind, too, that expressing thoughts and feelings aloud or in a diary may well also aid sleep and fight depression.
Working While You Sleep
So… It seems the part of your brain that dreams is doing far more than putting daft images in your head just for fun! It’s creating a metaphorical parallel to daily experiences that ‘boil off’ unresolved feelings in an attempt, it’s suggested, to make them more manageable in a waking state. Returning to the example of feeling anxious about speaking to a partner, you can probably imagine having a dream in which you walk, stiflingly hot and overdressed towards a podium in the middle of the stage…
Maybe it becomes clear that you’re supposed to be giving a speech. You look up into the audience and realise it comprises your friends, your family, and all the friends and family of your partner. When you look down at the podium, it might be that the sheets of paper are inexplicably blank. You feel sick at the prospect of speaking… This would be a cliche but not inconceivable example of the brain exaggerating the basic, unresolved emotion you had in your waking hours, and giving it a metaphorical dressing so that your brain can safely process it while you sleep.
When Do We Dream?
As you may have guessed, we dream every night. And several different dreams at night as well it seems! Those who are likely to dream the most are people who have spent time ruminating during the day. Not ruminating in the sense of the word ‘eat grass like a cow’, obviously, but rather ‘to turn over in the mind’. That’s because rumination happens inside your head: the emotions it generates may not find expression.
Dreaming And Depression
It’s this last point that’s of greatest interest to psychologists working in the field of depression. The connection between rumination and depression appears to be very strong, with studies showing that depressed people dream more – arguably too much – and often awaken feeling exhausted. That sense of exhaustion may prevent the depressed mindset from problem-solving; that in turn means that the real issues that are contributing to the depression don’t get addressed – and the cycle continues.
Interpret Your Dreams
Given everything we said earlier, you can probably see how the key to decoding your dreams lies not so much in the bizarre metaphors you puzzle over but in the feelings they elicit. When contemplating what a dream means, start by asking yourself how the dream made you feel…
Keep in mind that the emotion produced in the dream will probably be an exaggerated version of how you felt during the day. For instance, it might be that if one were to dream of being in a situation where they were shouting angrily and uncontrollably, it might be that they felt, earlier that day, that they weren’t able to speak without their words being repeated: perhaps there was frustration that someone had been indiscreet with sensitive information…
While exaggerated forms of unresolved feelings you experience on the day that you go to bed are key to decoding your dreams, the metaphorical details that your brain generates aren’t entirely random. It tends to be that the symbols and settings are somewhat borrowed from your own life! That’s to say that recent events usually provide the backdrop for the metaphors. It might be, for instance, that if you’ve been out walking on a sunny day then this features in your dreams; or if you visited a library or bookshop, then books might feature prominently.
This is difficult!
Some people find decoding their dreams hard. Others just have the knack… But it has to be said that it certainly needs thought! We can’t stress enough that the key is to start with the emotions you experience. After a little practice you’ll find, very often, that there’s an "Aha!" moment… You suddenly feel that the explanation you just thought of makes sense. It simply feels right. For more information on the psychology & importance of dreams, and the work of Joseph Griffin, check out the groundbreaking book The Origin of Dreams.
Sloane Square Clinic cannot accept responsibility for the consequences of any action or inaction based on its Newsletter or Info Sheets. If you have any doubts or concerns over medical and health issues, our best advice is always to pop in to see us, visit your GP or call NHS Direct on 111 to discuss your health.