The importance of dreaming while sleeping

‘Improving Sleep: From A to Zzzz’ is among the free resources provided by the Simms/Mann-UCLA Center for Integrative Oncology.

Scientists have studied dreaming for decades in an attempt to fully understand the dream state. What they do know is that dreams don’t just exist to entertain you while you rest — they serve a greater purpose.

Understanding the function and importance of dreaming may help you make better sense of your dreams. It might also provide the motivation you need to get more shut-eye.

Here’s what you need to know about the benefits of dreaming:

When do you dream while sleeping?

When you sleep, you cycle through four sleep stages multiple times a night. Dreaming can happen during any of those stages. But most dreaming takes place during the period known as rapid eye movement (REM) sleep.

REM sleep is the final part of the sleep cycle. With each new cycle, your REM sleep increases. That means most of your dreaming happens during the second half of your time in bed.

Dreams are also most intense and emotional during REM sleep — those are the dreams you’ll remember. People who wake during the REM stage remember their dreams 60% to 90% of the time. If you wake during non-REM sleep, you may only remember your dream 20% to 50% of the time.

What happens when you dream?

Your brain doesn’t stop processing information while you sleep — it’s one reason why you need sleep. The amount of processing that gets done and the topics you dream about can impact your well-being.

Experts believe that dreaming may:

Affect morning mood

Researchers believe that dreaming influences how you feel when you wake up. In one study, more than 40% of participants reported that dreams impact their morning mood at least once a month.

What you dream about can determine whether your mood will be good or bad:

  • Negative moods typically follow dreams about death, anxiety, your body and dreams where you’re alone.
  • Positive moods tend to come after dreams about positive emotions, leisure, eating or drinking, and dreams in which you’re with others.

Assist with emotional processing

Your mind doesn’t turn off when you sleep — it continues to process everything you experienced that day. Experts know that emotional processing is dependent on sleep — especially REM sleep. Since most of your dreaming happens during the REM stage, dreaming may play a role in that processing.

During REM sleep, your brain experiences a sharp decrease in noradrenaline (norepinephrine), an anxiety-triggering neurotransmitter. That means your brain can revisit and process upsetting memories in a safe space (your dreams) without those memories making you anxious.

Help you practice emotional response to stressful events

The threat simulation theory (TST) of dreaming suggests that dreams are realistic reproductions of real life-threatening events. According to the theory, dreams allow your brain to rehearse for stressful situations, perceive and detect threats, and know how to avoid them.

Some research suggests that people regularly exposed to threatening situations will have more stressful dreams. One study found that children who experience serious threats in their daily lives tend to dream more than children who aren’t exposed to stressful events — and those dreams are more likely to involve threatening situations.

Support memory consolidation

Your dreams rarely mimic your experiences precisely as they happen. But the stories in your dreams help your brain recreate and record everything that happens to you. Your brain takes those memories and organizes the information according to how it might be used in the future.

Dreams during REM sleep are typically full of emotion. Experts believe that emotion in those dreams may help strengthen your brain’s neural connections and enhance memory. Lack of REM sleep can interfere with forming new memories  — but it’s not clear whether memory formation is connected to a lack of REM dreaming.

How to get more REM sleep

Getting more sleep — especially REM sleep — improves your body’s ability to process emotions and memories. But since REM sleep is the final stage of sleep, it’s also the first stage to be cut if you don’t get enough sleep.

Infants and children need more REM sleep for brain development. Adults need an average of two hours of nightly REM sleep.

You may be getting less REM sleep if you have an issue that interferes with REM sleep, such as:

To ensure you get quality sleep and enough of it, establish healthy sleep habits and consult a doctor if you notice disrupted sleep.

Take the Next Step

If you are concerned about your sleep, reach out to your primary care physician.

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