The meaning behind dreams
Ever wondered if your dreams are trying to tell you something? Our resident sleep expert, Christabel Majendie, explores the meaning behind dreams, nightmares and night terrors.
Last night my husband woke up and reported a bizarre dream. “I dreamt there had been a nuclear fall-out and I found myself sheltering under my bed with a colleague who I particularly dislike. All I had to eat were Freddie’s (my son’s) large bag of sweets someone gave him for his birthday and I felt guilty that I was eating them.” Vivid, bizarre and emotional dreams are not unusual for most people. But what do they mean?
The meaning behind dreams
People have tried to interpret dreams long before Sigmund Freud claimed that they were a window to the unconscious mind. However, while the content of an individual’s dream can probably be traced back to a connection in their real life, it seems unlikely that dreams contain universal symbols with meaning attached to them.
The purpose of dreaming is still not entirely clear but it seems to be connected to memory consolidation and organisation, learning, problem solving and creative thinking. Dreaming sleep also appears to play a role in sorting out meaningful information collected during the day from events which are not important. Some also suggest that dreams occur to prepare us for risky or dangerous situations we may come across in the future.
During dreaming sleep, our brains are very active with brain scans indicating enhanced activity similar to an awake brain. Brain areas involved in the processing of emotions are very active as are those involved in visual imagery which explains why dreams tend to be very vivid and emotionally charged. Areas involved in self-awareness and executing control show reduced activity and this is probably why we normally can’t control our dreams, although some people report having lucid dreams.
Your preferred sleep position may affect your dreams with one study finding that stomach sleepers described their dreams as more intense, vivid and erotic. This is likely to be due to increased physical pressure to certain body parts.
Does everyone dream?
Everyone dreams every night, mainly occurring during a type of sleep call Rapid Eye Movement sleep (REM sleep). As we dream our eyeballs move around rapidly, whilst all other muscles (except those involved in breathing) are paralysed, so we don’t act out the dream and cause injury to ourselves or others. REM-sleep behaviour disorder occurs when the body fails to induce this muscle paralysis and the individual acts out the dream. This is different to sleep walking which occurs during deep sleep.
Adults spend between a fifth and a quarter of sleep time in REM sleep, although not everyone remembers their dreams. You are more likely to remember a dream if you wake in the middle of one or just after one, then write it down or describe it.
For many people dreams are a pleasant experience but for some nightmares can be a recurring problem which disturbs their sleep. If this is the case for you, try re-orientating yourself when you wake up by reminding yourself where you are. Talk to yourself out loud and use all your senses to describe what you can see (with the lights down low), hear, smell and touch to bring you back to the present moment. When you experience a nightmare, you may wake up detached from real time and space so by grounding yourself in the present you can reduce feelings of fear and anxiety associated with the dream. So for example you might say “I’m in my bedroom and I can feel my mattress beneath me and the duvet on my bed. I can see my curtains which are blue and I can smell the bunch of lavender on the mantelpiece. I can hear my partner breathing deeply.”
If you experience recurring nightmares, a suggestion is to write down details of the unpleasant dream the following day then change it to make it less frightening or even turn it into a comedy. Visualize your altered dream throughout the day. Evidence shows this technique can reduce the frequency and intensity of nightmares.
Night terrors are not the same as nightmares as they occur during deep sleep not during REM sleep. They are actually classed as part of a group of sleep disorders called Parasomnias, which also include sleep walking. Night terrors are most common in children aged between 2 and 8 years, although they may still occur less frequently in older children and adults. Although someone experiencing a night terror may appear to be awake with eyes open, body movements and speech, after the event most people show poor or no memory of it occurring. Children experiencing a night terror may thrash about, shout out, sit suddenly upright and seem to be in an inconsolable state, not recognising anything or anyone around them. The advice is to not wake someone experiencing a night terror unless they are a danger to themselves or others. This is because they may become even more distressed if forced to wake up.
Night terrors can last up to 15 minutes and can be very distressing for anyone witnessing them. They are thought to be linked to being overtired or sleep deprived. They are also associated with feelings of stress, worry or excitement.
Sleep paralysis can occur in some people just before dropping off to sleep or during waking and may last for seconds or several minutes. The main symptom, as described by the name, is the inability to move one’s body. This may be accompanied by visual hallucinations or hearing sounds and voices that are not part of reality. Often an episode of sleep paralysis may also involve an experience of intense pressure on the chest which can result in shortness of breath. Sleep paralysis can be very anxiety provoking although it is a harmless occurrence. It is related to the normal process of muscle paralysis which occurs during REM sleep.
As with night terrors, sleep paralysis is more common if you are sleep deprived or during periods of increased stress. So the clear message is, don’t cut back on your sleep, manage your stress and make your bedroom a sleep-promoting environment. Sleep and dreaming are clearly important.