The Neuroscience of Dreams & Nightmares + How to Have Better Dreams & Help Your Children Process & Understand Nightmares

In this podcast (episode #401) and blog, I talk about dreaming and mental health. This topic was inspired by an email I recently received:

“Since dreams come from our busy minds, can we slowly over time change our dreams in some way?  I do not always remember dreams obviously but when I am awakened by dreams (often) or remember the next day, I do have a recurring pattern of always hurrying or being super frustrated, anxious!  I cannot help but think this is part of why I get so tired some days as I do not rest peacefully at night.  I’m just thinking dreams must be all part of the mental mind and I would love to have my dreams peaceful, pleasant, restful, whether I remember the dream or not, I feel like not having all the anxiety and frustration in the dreams would be very helpful to my awake hours.”

This is a great question, and one I think applies to a lot of people (including myself!). Why? We need to remember that detoxing the mind and brain doesn’t just take place when we are awakeWe also detox our thoughts when we are asleep; in fact, our dreams can help us sort out our thoughts and clean up our mental mess. They have a purpose—recurring dreams may even indicate an unresolved issue in our lives, so it is important that we try and pay attention to what we dream about.

But how? Isn’t it hard to remember your dreams? People often tell me they can’t recall what they dreamt about or that they don’t dream. But the fact is that we all dream; it’s a neuroscientific process. Dreams are generally forgotten because either they have been processed or they are suppressed by the nonconscious mind because they are too hard or painful to deal with.

Dreams occur during rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. We start with non-REM sleep (NREM), where the mind and brain stop processing the outside world, which then progresses into REM sleep, where the mind and brain starts processing our inner thought life.

Thoughts with their embedded memories are stored in three places: the mind, the brain and the body. The strong emotions that are tangled with the data of these thoughts can create an imbalance and disruption to homeostasis of the mind brain and body if they are toxic or undealt with. When we are asleep, the nonconscious mind steps to sort out these imbalances and tries to restore order and balance to your thinking.

But the nonconscious can only fix things to a point; it requires the interaction of the conscious mind to resolve issues. To get the attention of the conscious mind, the information is released like “bubbles” and the content is expressed in your nonconscious mind as stories complete with a plot and characters in the language of your everyday awareness. This does not always appear in ways that allow you to immediately or easily understand things, which is why dreams can often be confusing.

During the day, we process our experience with active and dynamic self-regulation. This means that the conscious and nonconscious mind work together, and we process from the concrete to the abstract. At night, on the other hand, we process the other way around, because just the nonconscious mind is involved, which operates outside of the space-time environment. This contributes to the strangeness of our dreams. Some dream experts even suggest that our perceptions are processed in dreams in a backward way - that is we don’t see things quite the same way as we do during the day, although the science regarding dreams is still in its infancy.

Since all thoughts are made of data, feelings and choices, dreams can have a strong emotional impact, as I am sure you well know. I myself have woken up crying or in pain, and couldn’t even remember what I dreamt about! Dreams involve thinking about abstract ideas that are represented visually, which is another reason they can be so confusing mentally and emotionally.

Neurochemically, when we are awake, the neurotransmitters serotonin and norepinephrine help us line up our thoughts, apply logic and process what we are experiencing; we only get burst of acetylcholine (another neurotransmitter) as something grabs our attention. At nighttime, acetylcholine is active, which helps us consolidate our thoughts with their embedded memories, while serotonin and norepinephrine shut down. The firing of acetylcholine without the “logic power” that serotonin and norepinephrine bring can also make our dreams feel strange or odd.

As we fall into REM sleep, a host of signals fires up from the pons (part of the brain stem) into the cortex but not the frontal lobe, so the reasoning and rational explanations that happen when we are conscious don’t occur. This means we don’t have a rational explanation of the mix of thoughts that make up our dreams. The signals then move to the amygdala, where our emotional library of perceptions is woken up, creating a busy dream characterized by feelings that may not make much sense.

But all this strangeness doesn’t mean that dreams are not important. When we are dreaming, different parts of the brain and body are exchanging information to clean up our memory networks and prepare us for the next day. The nonconscious mind sweeps through your “thought forests”, while the detail of the memories on these thought trees are being pulled out by the mind with the help of the glial cells (support cells in the brain), which are stimulated to get to work to prepare you for the next day. This process includes sorting out unresolved issues that threaten balance and coherence in the brain.

Dreams are the result of all this intense “housework”. The poorly built, incompletely processed or toxic trauma thoughts with their embedded memories are a part of the process of cleaning up our mental mess. The other part of the equation that is equally important is our conscious involvement with our dreams, i.e. us thinking about and analyzing our dreams when we are awake.

Dreams are also important in helping stabilize new information we have learned during the day. Thoughts with their embedded memories become physically stronger as we dream. If we learn something new during the day, after a good night’s sleep, we will have better understanding of what we learned, so “sleeping on a problem” can be a good thing!

On a physiological level, the dream state allows the psychosomatic network to retune itself and get ready for the demands of our waking life. Shifts occur in our brain’s reaction chains, and chemicals and energy spill into the networks of the brain, binding to receptors on the thought trees and allowing for activities necessary for homeostasis. All these readjustments also enter the mind as we dream; essentially, the stories of our dreams are these readjustments trying to send our conscious mind information that something in our thought life needs attention.

Brain scans show that the part of the brain that processes emotional perceptions, the amygdala (or “library”), becomes very active. However, the part of the brain that responds to balance the amygdala, the PFC, is less active. As a result, toxic blocks or suppressed thoughts/traumas may be hidden from the conscious mind and only come out when we are asleep, which is why responding to the patterns in our dreams as warning signals and messengers, or becoming what I call a “thought dream detective”, is so important.

Dreams can have patterns that can tell us about ourselves and what we are going through. But it’s important to note that just as each of us are unique, so are our dreams. As the person above mentions in her question. “I do have a recurring pattern of always hurrying or being super frustrated, anxious! I cannot help but think this is part of why I get so tired some days as I do not rest peacefully at night.” These patterns are messages or clues that the dynamic regulation occurring in your nonconscious mind is trying to send you, often telling you to actively pay attention to and embrace, process and reconceptualize what you are experiencing. By doing this, you will help bring order and coherence back into your mind and improve your quality of sleep and mental wellbeing. For more on ways to do this though mind management, I recommend checking out my latest book, Cleaning Up Your Mental Mess.

There is, however, a difference between nightmares and night terrors. Nightmares are unpleasant or frightening dreams that can cause emotional distress, and usually occur during REM sleep. In most cases, these nightmares don't involve physical or vocal behaviors. Night terrors, on the other hand, are caused by an over-arousal of the central nervous system (CNS) during sleep. 

Sleep happens in several stages. We have dreams, including nightmares, during the rapid eye movement (REM) stage, as mentioned above. Night terrors happen during deep NREM sleep, and are often associated with deep seated trauma and long-term, unmanaged toxic stress. When it comes to dealing with the mental and physical ramifications of night terrors, therapy is really important, along with lifestyle changes such as a regular relaxing routine before bedtime.

When it comes to children and nightmares, it is important not to invalidate their experiences by telling them “it’s just a dream” or “it’s not so bad”. Remember, dreams are often messengers; their nightmares could be a sign of a trauma response to something that is going on in their lives. So, sit with them or let them sleep in your room—comfort them and listen to them. When they are ready, you can also help them process their dreams through drawing and pictures. It may even be a good idea to take them to therapy, especially if the nightmares are recurring. 

For more on dreaming and mental health, listen to my podcast (episode #401). If you enjoy listening to my podcast, please consider leaving a 5-star review and subscribing. And keep sharing episodes with friends and family and on social media. (Don’t forget to tag me so I can see your posts!).

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Podcast Highlights

2:15 The neuroscience of sleep

3:00 How stress & trauma can affect our sleep & dreams

7:35 Sleep, dreams & the nonconscious mind

11:35 How nightmares can affect us

14:20 The relationship between mind management & dreaming 

18:25 The difference between nightmares & night terrors

23:00 How our experiences impact our dreams 

29:00 What to do if your children have a lot of nightmares

This podcast and blog are for educational purposes only and are not intended as medical advice. We always encourage each person to make the decision that seems best for their situation with the guidance of a medical professional.

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