What if our bad dreams actually help us control our emotions while awake? Even nightmares have their uses, helping us to be able to cope with the stresses of everyday life.
We certainly do not suspect it when we remember them, but bad dreams can also be useful.
Periods of chronic stress
Who does not ask questions about their mental health or the quality of their sleep, after a year of pandemic and repeated confinements? Some nightmares, maybe?
This is quite normal: no one, apart from periods of war or combat, is in principle subject to lasting stress such as that experienced for more than a year now by almost the entire planet.
Children, whose brains are still developing, are even more sensitive to it. But we should not be afraid of having bad dreams, because this is how we partly unload the emotional overload of everyday life.
If the average person is having restless nights these days, imagine healthcare workers. As highlighted by a study carried out at the epicenter of the Covid-19 epidemic, in Wuhan (China), the teams on the front line have had a series of nightmares.
Of the 114 doctors and 414 nurses consulted in a study published in January 2021, more than a quarter of them had bad dreams. For what reasons? The stress of everyday life, of course, but also the lack of sleep as well as quality sleep time. A perfectly legitimate period of chronic stress.
Periods of rapid eye movement
In fact, when we sleep, our brain reorganizes and archives the memories of the day. It is particularly during periods of rapid eye movement (MOR in French, REM for Rapid Eye Movement in English), during the paradoxical sleep phase, that our dreams, good or bad, unfold.
Of course, the most emotionally charged memories will influence your sleep during these periods of “updating” the real dream machine that is our brain. This phase, therefore, helps us to manage and integrate the overflows of emotions and to preserve our emotional balance on a daily basis.
According to the researchers, the sleepers’ MORs are not the reflection of dream visual scenes, as if we were scanning a scene or a landscape, but rather an action allowing us to zap from one scene to another.
Our dreams during these times would actually help us control our emotions once awake. How? ‘Or’ What? Literally by training the part of our brains that stores this type of emotional baggage to deal with it.
As examinations during these MOR times have shown, the hippocampus and amygdala are hyperactive, both in organizing and storing memories and in managing emotions. Indeed, while the hippocampus and the cortex make possible an explicit conscious memory, the amygdala allows one of the forms of our implicit memories, the emotional memory related to fear.
An increased need for emotional regulation
Thus, the more someone has had nightmares and experienced fear in their dreams, the less the centers of emotion will be activated when confronted with stressful images or situations while awake.
Studies have also shown that the level of cortisol, a hormone produced by the adrenal glands and helps to regulate our stress response, is higher in the morning. As if our brains and our bodies have somehow updated themselves to be ready to face the stress of a new day.
As highlighted by a recent study from the University of Lyon, carried out at the time of the first confinement, the frequency of nightmares increases with stress.
During confinement, the content of these bad dreams varied between worries (85%), conflicts (75%), helplessness (60%), failures (40%), illness (20%), confinement (10%), and Covid-19 (5%).
In other words, these results confirm that nightmares are not the “replay” of real events. Only 30% of the people who followed dreamed of their original trauma.
However, say the researchers from Lyon, the increase in the frequency of nightmares could be interpreted not only as reactivation of traumatic memories but also as an increased need for emotional regulation. Think about it the next time you do one: it’s for your own good!