Why do dreams matter?

by Ezra Hewing | 26 Jun 2024
Why do dreams matter?

At Suffolk Mind and The Mental Health Toolkit, we use the Emotional Needs and Resources approach across all of our services, training courses and free content. We talk a lot about the 12 Emotional Needs we all have, and how to meet them, but what about our nine Innate Resources?

We all have a set of Innate Resources, meaning that we are born with ways to meet our needs through life. When we use our resources to their advantage, we can start to meet our physical and emotional needs and stay on the wellbeing side of the mental health continuum.

Here, we look at the resource of Dreaming and how getting a good night’s sleep can help improve your mental health.

The science behind Dreaming

While most of us will have experienced vivid dreams in our lives, the truth is that dreams are not simply random.

Research into dreaming has shown that the things we dream about are unresolved emotions from the day. Any emotionally arousing event which we are unable or unwilling to act upon is ‘switched off’ when we dream.

For example, we may see an advert for a delicious chocolate cake on the TV in the evening and the advert may cause a desire for chocolate cake. However, if we’re unable to eat a piece of cake, we may dream of eating something tasty or that we’re unable to reach something we want.

Most dreams take place during a phase of sleep called rapid eye movement, or REM sleep. This is different from the deeper, restorative sleep we need to recover from a long day, but nevertheless forms an important part of the sleep cycle.

What do our dreams try to tell us?

To ‘switch off’ emotional arousals from the day, our brain will dream in metaphor. This helps keep reality and dreams separate.

For instance, if a car driver triggers an angry response in us during the day, we may actually dream that we’re having an argument with a spouse or boss during REM sleep. Therefore, dreams help you ‘act out’ the days events so you wake up refreshed and emotionally ‘reset’.

That is why we might have pleasant dreams if there is an event we are really looking forward to, or mild nightmares if we have tried to hide away from something that worries us.

Why is dreaming important for mental health?

As dreaming helps ‘switch off’ emotions from the previous day, if a lack of sleep prevents us from dreaming, we may carry over negative emotions to the next day. This could cause anxiety to persist and lead to a ‘REM sleep rebound’, when our brain decides that we need to increase dreaming to ‘switch off’ negative emotions.

This is how anxiety can lead to depression. Researchers have known for 50 years that most people suffering with depression have an excessive amount of REM sleep which causes them to wake up feeling exhausted, low in mood and struggling to address the cause of their stresses. In most cases, it is the worrying fuelled by anxiety which leads to excessive dreaming and tips people into depression.

How do we address this and prevent excessive dreaming? To improve our wellbeing and our sleep, we may need help to reduce worrying and begin to address some of the unmet needs which disrupt  REM sleep .

Meeting your emotional needs better while you are awake can include getting a bit more movement in the day, speaking to a friend, making time for some privacy, can result in better sleep.

Getting good-quality sleep

Remember – Sleep is one of our 12 physical and emotional needs, so getting a good night’s sleep is important for your mental health.

The amount of sleep we need differs from person to person – dependent on factors like your age – although most adults need around seven to eight hours a night.

If you need help in getting a better night’s sleep or advice on nightmares, visit our dedicated sleep section for more.

by Ezra Hewing

Ezra is Head of Education at Suffolk Mind. Ezra also creates all of the workshop and courses at The Mental Health Toolkit and regularly delivers training.

“What I love about training from this approach is seeing people make the connection between the challenges they face and the emotional needs of the people they live and work with. I’ve lost count of how many people have told us that the approach helped them make sense of challenging situations at work and at home, and to take the next step towards finding a solution which met everyone’s needs.”

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