As I discussed in earlier posts, dreaming actually helps us with our worries, stressful situations, and our feelings towards them.
The natural therapy that dreaming provides can be accelerated and strengthened with external support (Rock, 2005), like family and friends, therapy, programs designed to help with the problem (like Sleep’n Sync), or any conscious intervention that addresses the current stressful or traumatic experience.
A traumatic experience and how the brain naturally process it is an extreme example in how our brains tend to heal us through dreams. Usually the brain is constantly active in our dreams, it creates them with our current concerns and anxieties. Let’s take a case of a pregnant woman: at the first stages of her pregnancy she can dream about her body being deformed and ugly, reflecting her anxiety about the changes happening in her body and the fear that she will not be attractive anymore. Later on in her pregnancy, she could dream about her baby, her baby’s appearance, or a way in which she cannot handle some aspect of motherhood, reflecting her anxiety in her new unknown role of mother, and her worries of how her baby would look like.
What really helps in dreaming is not the dreams themselves, which are more likely to be forgotten soon after we wake up. The part of dreaming that is really helpful is the forming and reforming of connections in different neural networks (Rock, 2005).
What our brain does when we dream is a physiological process that some times reinforces older memories, and other times makes new links and connections, integrating new experience and therefore updating our mental model of ourselves and our surroundings. The purpose of dreaming is to integrate information that is important to our lives, even when we don’t remember our dreams.
What happens when we do remember our dreams? We get an insight into clues that tell us what is really worrying us, and point out our emotional concerns which we might have been unaware of, or we might not want to think of them, but that are important to us.
Let’s go back to our pregnant woman, she is now in her third trimester of her pregnancy and she is having nightmares, that she clearly recalls, in which she is holding a baby, a warm and smallbaby, but when she looks at her baby’s face she realizes it is deformed, like a monster…in that moment she wakes up in panic…
This nightmare reflects her worries for her baby, how will she be born?, will she be all right? healthy? complete? etc…all the worries we (mothers) go through while pregnant…consciously we might know the baby is coming all right, since we’ve been to the doctor regularly, got an ultrasound, and other tests that don’t show any cause for worry, however we know there are still some risks, even when they are extremely low…
How to deal with this? One thing that can help is to change our dream. How? We can consciously change the dream as we want it to be while awake, and we can rehearse it over and over again (awake).
In our example, the pregnant woman can consciously replay her dream until the moment in which she looks at her baby’s face, in that moment she will look at the face of a healthy and beautiful baby, and she will be happy and joyful with her child. Then she can rehearse this new consciously created dream over and over again.
Why does this work? When we have nightmares that we can recall, we can indeed make them better by replaying them while awake, which is a different setting in itself, and changing consciously some elements of the dream so that we make it a good dream instead of a nightmare, then consciously rehearsing this new dream will indeed translate partially into the actual dream at night, making it less disturbing. This happens because our brain recalls our mental instructions, or autosuggestions, in how the dream should be, and incorporates them into the actual dream.