Vivid dreaming in REM sleep comes with loads of mental health benefits.
Some people believe that our dreams offer an insight into our minds: terrifying visions of your teeth falling out is supposed to be a fear of change, while dreams about pregnancy apparently signify that, subconsciously, we’re gearing up for a new life.
Ever since the days of Freud, debates have raged over the validity of this kind of dream analysis – but one thing is for sure: dreams are important. They tend to happen during the rapid eye movement (REM) stage of sleep – when the eyes flutter, the body is temporarily paralysed and the brain is at its most ‘active’. This usually happens about an hour and a half after we close our eyes. The first cycle of REM is thought to be the shortest of all the sleep cycles; as we move through the night, is aleve good for toothaches we spend longer in each stage of REM. Typically, you go through three to five stages of REM sleep a night.
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Whether or not dreams tell us about our deepest desires and anxieties, dreaming can offer serious benefits.
3 benefits of dreaming
1. Dreams improve memory
Many researchers believe that the reason we dream is to process all of the information we’ve taken on during the day. It’s a kind of nightly spring clean; getting rid of the memories we don’t need to store and solidifying the stuff we need to remember.
Studies have also found that sleep helps us retain memories. In one of the first papers on the subject in 1990, it was found that people who took an intensive foreign language course were found to have an increased amount of rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. As that’s the stage in which dreaming is thought to occur, researchers hypothesised that dreaming may play an essential role in the acquisition of memory.
In another study, participants played a virtual reality maze and were asked to recall the path. Those who napped after the exercise recalled more information than those who didn’t sleep, and those who dreamt during their nap improved 10 times faster than the rest of the sleeping group.
“Specialists feel that dreams are actively documenting what we need to know and remember rather than just reflecting it,” wrote surgeon and medical author Dr M. Sruthi in an article for Medicine Net. If you ever dreamt of a mundane road, building or event that was mentioned in passing during a conversation in your day, it’s because “your dreams operate as a ‘rehearsal’ for that new knowledge, allowing our brain to put it into practice and actively organise and solidify it”, she adds.
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2. Dreams help process emotions
We may wake up feeling confused, scared or perhaps even still laughing at a dream, but however they make you feel, dreams can help us better manage our emotions in real life.
“Your dream tales essentially aim to remove the emotion out of a given event by forming a memory of it. Therefore, the emotion related to the event is no longer active. This helps you cope with emotions, especially negative ones, which may otherwise promote stress and anxiety,” explains Dr Sruthi.
In a 2019 review, researchers from the University of Rome found that emotional regulation and dreaming share similar neurobiological pathways, meaning that the same parts of the brain operate when managing our emotions in wakefulness and when we’re in REM sleep. “Dreams could be considered a reactivation of waking-life memories and during REM sleep this ‘replay’ [can contain] highly emotional contents,” researchers concluded.
They also noted that dreaming plays a pivotal role in enhancing the possibility to create a “virtual world” during sleep that helps to generate more efficient predictions while awake. “Hence, dreams not only can contribute to the consolidation of memories with a great emotional load, but can also represent a mechanism to simulate the real world as a sort of problem-solving based on emotional coping strategies,” wrote researchers.
3. Dreams protect mental health
Each stage of sleep plays a crucial role in our health, but REM is particularly important for protecting the brain.
In research from the Netherlands Institute for Neuroscience, it was found that REM sleep “silences the siren of the brain”. A lack of quality REM sleep – and dreams – was shown to undermine people’s ability to overcome emotional distress, raising their risk for chronic depression or anxiety.
Researchers said it was down to the amygdala, a part of the brain activated when upset. REM sleep was shown to ‘switch off’ the amygdala and reduce its activation to similarly distressing events the following day.
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There is also a rare condition called REM sleep behaviour disorder (RSB), in which the body fails to be temporarily paralysed as it should be during REM. Because of that, people may physically act out their dreams. But because of the incomplete REM sleep, those who suffer from the disorder are also at risk of other neurological diseases such as Parkinson’s disease or other cognitive, emotional, and neurological problems, including anxiety, apathy and poor attention.
How to dream more
There are all sorts of alleged ways to dream more, from eating cheese before bed to sleeping on your left-hand side. But because we often don’t remember the dreams we have, there’s no point focusing on increasing or improving the visions themselves. Instead, we should focus on getting better quality REM sleep.
You can do that with the typical sleep hygiene rules, including going to bed at a regular time that isn’t too late at night. That way, your body has time to fall into the extended REM stages that happen later in your sleep. Exercise in the day, avoiding lights before bed and not drinking alcohol also improve overall sleep quality.
Napping is also shown to be higher in REM sleep, as we prioritise memory consolidation during daytime sleep.
And the next time you wake up worried about what your dream means, just know that it’s probably done you more good than harm – no matter how weird it was.
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