How Dreams Affect Mental Health

The role of dreams in mental health has long been a conversation in sleep and psychological communities. We are beginning to better understand that dreams are an underrated and essential byproduct of a good night’s sleep.

Not only do some of our best and most creative ideas come to us during the night, dreams also make a key impact on our mental health.

Several studies in recent years have highlighted the connection between dreams and how we feel when we’re awake. We’ll get to some of those interesting results in a moment.

But in particular, it’s worth pointing out dreams help combat issues that millions of Americans face every day — fear and anxiety.

How is that?

Think of it like batting practice for the brain: if a professional baseball player doesn’t get his swings in before the game, the odds are against him getting a hit against a 96 miles per hour fastball later that night.

The same goes for fear and anxiety.

We’re better equipped to deal with real-world issues after we’ve experienced an anxiety-inducing situation while we’re asleep. That’s where dreams become our practice field and better prepare us for what life throws our way.

This theory was reinforced by a study just published in October. The researchers, from the University of Geneva and University Hospitals of Geneva, working together with the University of Wisconsin, had 89 participants track their dreams for a week. The participants were asked to jot down their feelings when they woke up, including whether they were afraid.

They were then shown emotionally-jarring images, including pictures of assaults, and other stressful situations. The researchers “found that those reporting a higher incidence of fear in their dreams showed reduced emotional arousal” while awake.

In other words: participants who experienced scary dreams were more likely to respond to emotional stress in a healthier way.

To dream, we need to spend ample time in rapid-eye-movement, or REM, sleep. It’s the fifth and final phase we reach while sleeping, and typically isn’t reached until the final third of our time asleep. REM sleep typically depends on whether we’re able to hit our target of at least five full sleep cycles each night. This is a critical period, too, since REM sleep is associated with vivid dreams and increased brain activity.

The connection between REM and our ability to cope with anxiety and fear was outlined in a study from Rutgers University in 2017. As the researchers succinctly put it: “the more REM sleep [a] subject had, the weaker the fear-related effect” on them was when they were awake.

Producing those dreams that will help your mental health is difficult without a good night’s sleep, however. In fact, it’s nearly impossible.

This is where what you’re sleeping on comes into play; remember, your mattress is the foundation on which good sleep is built.

To hear many people tell it, they can’t find a mattress that is “just right” or the “bed in a box” they bought isn’t fitting the bill anymore. The result is that they don’t get a full night of deep, restful sleep. And it follows that they are also not getting the full positive impact of the dreaming state.

It doesn’t have to be that way, though.

The simplest (and most cost-effective) answer for most people is a mattress topper.

There’s more good news, too: a topper can extend the life of your current mattress in a supportive, comfortable way, up to several years — and they cost much less than a new mattress.

You may decide to pass on the topper and just get a new mattress. If you do, be sure you read my article on how to pick a perfect mattress, first.

Enough about mattresses and toppers, let’s get back to dreaming!

There are more ways dreams are beneficial beyond dealing with fear and anxiety, too.

The Rutgers study mentioned above also showed REM sleep makes you less prone to developing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

There’s also mounting evidence REM sleep fosters creativity and problem-solving and even makes us better at recognizing when those around us feel happy or sad.

A 2010 study found participants who have not woken up from REM sleep have a “marked and significant” drop-off in their ability to read happy or angry facial expressions. It’s clear that, whether dealing with your boss or your significant other, doing so on a good night’s rest can certainly make things easier.