Dreaming Helps Process Your Daily Emotions

Getting enough sleep makes us feel better. Everyone knows this. But a team of sleep researchers at UC Berkeley has proof. According to a recently completed study of 35 young adults, REM sleep, that period of sleep characterized by rapid eye movement and vivid dreaming, not only shuts down certain chemical processes associated with ongoing stress but also actively helps us process the emotional experiences of the day.

Accounting for about 20 percent of our sleeping time, REM sleep is not fully understood but has been implicated in the formation of memories and mood regulation. It is accompanied by a sharp decline in norepinephrine neurotransmitters, major stress-causing chemicals in the brain, and decreased activity in the amygdala, the area of the brain responsible for assigning an emotional weight to experiences.

The study's authors hypothesize that the active review of past experiences during dreaming sleep, in combination with the "decoupling" of the emotional centers of the brain, allow individuals to integrate memories and experiences free from potentially stress-inducing emotional reactions. Dreams offer, in a sense, a safe place in which to examine the goings-on of our lives.

Findings from the UC Berkeley study are consistent with observations of veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder and those with other established sleep disorders. In these patients, the safe, emotionally-blunted realm of dreams is inaccessible. Sleep becomes fraught with nightmares, and a person is unable to comfortably face the past. This lack of integration carries on into waking life, where the person becomes increasingly incapable of properly handling experiences.

The UC Berkeley team hopes that an improved understanding of the role of dreams and REM sleep in emotional integration will be able to help both those with sleep disorders and those with stress-related issues. The mind, they say, is equipped with mechanisms to protect and heal itself, if we can just find a way to tap into them.

Source: The University of California, Berkeley
Photo: Pixabay

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