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    Bad Dreams May Be Bad for Your Mental Health


    Mental health professionals have historically thought of bad dreams (e.g., emotional distress, nightmares) as reflecting underlying mental dysfunctions that are buried in the unconscious and only become consciously accessible in dreams. Freud, Jung, and colleagues, popularized this view and assumed that dream analysis could unmask the mental problem and thereby open a door for treatment. There is an alternate way to think about dreams that is still compatible with the classic view, but adds a new dimension for improving mental health.

    Freud’s Missed Opportunity

    What classical psychiatry seems to have missed is the possibility that dream content has effects of its own that may be aggravating the very psychological problems that therapists were trying to treat. We humans consciously recognize what our brains are thinking about in episodic states of sleep interruption in which the brain becomes activated and the eyes show darting movements, as if the eyes are visually scanning the dream content. These stages of sleep are known as REM, for rapid eye movement. In REM, the dreamer is not only aware of the dream events but is often an active agent within the dreams. In these so-called “lucid dreams,” the dreamer may even be able to willfully alter dream content.

    The transient state of consciousness that arises repeatedly throughout a night’s sleep enables unconscious influences to emerge in dreams. If that content is a “bad dream,” it has a reinforcing effect on the thought dysfunction that is causing problems during wakefulness. We all know that repeating negative thoughts during the awake state reinforces the flawed thinking. Conventional therapy aims to help patients redirect negative thoughts and feelings in ways that are more positive.  In dreams we normally just let the negative thoughts run their course, which has the effect of strengthening the undesirable thoughts. In fact, negative dream content during dreams may be more deleterious than the same content during wakefulness, because modern research has shown that a major function of sleep, both dream- and non-dream, is to consolidate recent short-term memories. The dream content of dreams is immediately reinforced during the return to sleep. Unlike memory consolidation during wakefulness, sleep blocks out interfering sensory and cognitive processes during the memory-vulnerable period immediately after learning.

    Personal Anecdote

    Because to our knowledge there is no research in this area, I can only provide anecdotal reports that this premise that dream content may be a cause as well as a consequence of emotional distress. I have had a lifetime of bad dreams, off and on. Some of my unpleasant dreams recur, such as forgetting where I parked my car, or being lost, or being in a complex, unresolvable situationall of which reinforce a feeling of inadequacy. In such dreams, my brain is teaching me to think of myself as inadequate. That is surely not healthy. No doubt there are others who have similar bad dreams, and assuredly there are other kinds of bad experiences that occur in everybody’s dreams. The point here is not to explore what these dreams mean, but to recognize that such dreams may be aggravating the emotional problems that cause the disturbing content in the first place.

    In the example above, my brain is programming itself to reinforce a feeling of helplessness and inadequacy. Night after night, year after year, this becomes a psychologically destructive force. Clearly, a solution would be to make yourself stop having such dreams. How might this be done? One possibility is that you could decide to be more aware of the content of each dream, both during the dream itself and afterwards, as during a nighttime bathroom break and upon awakening in the morning. During wakeful periods right after a dream, you need to tell yourself that these dream ideas are wrong and unhelpful. Tell your brain to stop punishing yourself like this.

    In wakeful states, we know that it is possible for positive self-talk to program the brain for more constructive thought. We ought to be able to program our subconscious in a similar way during its operation during sleep and in the dream review right after awakening. So in this case, you should chastise your brain for any bad dream, and consciously insist just before going to sleep that your brain only generate dreams that are entertaining, helpful, or at least neutral. The assumption is that your mind can tell its brain what to do. After all, the brain is programmable, and you get to do much of the programming. This simplistic strategy seems to be working, as the incidence of my bad dreams has markedly diminished.

    No doubt, there are more robust strategies that could be developed. Learning how to have more lucid dreams could help ,because in that state the dreamer might be able to veto negative content as it starts to emerge. In addition, corrective positive reinforcement self-talk needs to be cemented in long-term memory and that can be strengthened by retrieving positive self-talk immediately after awakening from a bad dream. Also, it is important to hold such self-talk sessions under conditions where memory consolidation is not impaired by distracting activity or thought.
    To learn more about how our minds work, see my inexpensive, lay audience books, Mental Biology, and Memory Power 101, available at Amazon and Barnes and Noble.

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