Insomnia? Bad Sleep, Mad Dreams – Healthy Dreaming
"Are bad sleeping habits driving us mad?” asks Emma Young (Ref 1).
All well-meaning friends will tell you the importance of a good nights' sleep; it is only when we do get it that we notice how important it is. So important that, regularly, for about a third of the day, our body will insist that we slumber into sleep, calculating that the benefits are greater than both the costs and vulnerability of laying down and being oblivious to the world!
Sleep is an innate drive (like wanting to eat) and serves the functions (Ref 4) of conserving energy, keeping us safe, supporting our learning and our memory and is part of the process of restoring our physical and emotional health.
Very often, clients may be told by well-meaning friends that it is their underlying emotional issues that causes disturbed sleep and that they just need to "get over it" or "get a good night’s sleep". There are plenty of good websites that can provide tips on getting that good night’s sleep.
Similarly, there are many great articles (like Emma’s and others listed below) that describe the process and cycles of sleeping, from REM (Rapid Eye Movement) through to SWS (Slow Wave Sleep), that not only explain those terms in more detail, but also about the process we wave through several cycles of SWS and REM each night and also the importance of the right balance of REM and SWS.
For example, SWS is the deep sleep state in which the physical healing of the cells in the body repair, food is properly digested and the non-essential organs get to have a recuperating rest – its why healthy people reporting feeling ‘refreshed’ after their ‘good night’s sleep’ and depressed people, (who often report broken sleep) appear bedraggled and lacking; they need more repair time. That’s obvious.
What’s less obvious, and Emma’s article raises the prospect, is that a failure to get the right balance between SWS and REM sleep can result in emotional and psychological disturbance. In particular she describes how interrupted or lack of REM sleep will affect the dreaming and memory process and how this can add to emotional distress. It becomes a vicious cycle because dreaming REM sleep is essential for health.
The Human Givens approach (ref 3) describe how dreams occur in the REM state and are the healthy means by which emotional upsets (perhaps from the previous day) are processed. The pent emotional energy is released and our emotional challenges are more clearly understood through the dream speaking to us in metaphor, which is why our dreams can seem to be so strange- it is our attempt to make sense of emotional stuff!
Take an example of somebody who has become cross with a friend but withholds the anger. That night they dream of perhaps arguing and shouting at a big fluffy teddy bear (which might represent of be the metaphor for the overall nature of the friendship). The body would respond to the dream as if the anger had been vented in reality (because the body cannot distinguish between the dream and reality – which is the reason that we dream in metaphor, so that the sleep state is different to the waking state) and the body can drift into the repairing SWS. Because the dream has worked and discharged the energy, it is likely that the dream will be forgotten – The emotional edge has been taken off the experience - job done!
If the emotional upset has been very traumatic, overwhelming or the person is in general anxious, worried or depressed, the dream process can be stuck in REM mode. In REM the brain is working as hard as if we are awake. Not only is that exhausting in itself, but it also means that the healing SWS process is not enjoyed. The client can become depleted very quickly and feel unable to cope, and experience even more emotional upsets. The client has entered into a cycle of depression, whereby the dream sleep cannot resolve the emotional upsets, which as they backlog the client feels even more exhausted and unable to cope resulting in further emotional upsets.
This is because more dreaming and being in the REM state burns up energy, whereas as SWS is recuperative, and re-energises the brain, the mind and the body. This disturbs the sleep pattern and results in depressed people that, despite tending to sleep more, wake up feeling exhausted.
The good news, as ever, is that talking through our emotional upsets and having hypnotherapy to help us relax, can gently release pent up emotions, and to build practical action plans to prepare for and get good quality, balanced sleep can help us resolve common disturbed sleep patterns.
1. Young, E (2009) “Are Bad Sleeping Habits Driving Us Mad?” Published in the New Scientist, issue 2696.
2. Stickgold et al (2006) “Lets Sleep On it” Published in The American Psychological Society Journal Volume 37, Issue1
3. Griffin, J. & Tyrrell, I. “How dreaming keeps us sane or can drive us mad
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