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BREATHING SPACE

Why we all need to dream more

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Alarm clocks, alcohol and mobile phones are affecting how much we dream and how many dreams we remember. But there are benefits to paying attention, finds Emily Baker

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By Emily Baker on

I’ve been keeping an open notebook and pen on my bedside table for the past week. In the middle of the night, in a sleepy stupor, I pick up the pen and free-associate words on the the paper. The most recent entry reads “walking down a street, dark but not scary, cold, dog” – last night’s dream. It’s not much to go on narrative-wise, but a vague sense of happiness does wash over me when I read it back – maybe because I don’t own a dog in real life.

According to Rubin Naiman, a psychologist at the University of Arizona, we’re currently living through a dream deprivation “epidemic”. His recent paper, Dreamless: The Silent Epidemic Of REM Sleep Loss, claims that our modern, busy lifestyles are having a drastic impact on the amount of REM (rapid eye movement) sleep we’re having every night. Alcohol and other substances limit the amount of dream sleep, keeping us in a light slumber, rather than the deep restorative sleep. Electronics also don’t help – the blue light of our phones and laptops affect the amount of melatonin (the hormone that facilitates sleep) our brains produce, knocking our body clocks and our sleep stages out of their usual pattern. Alarm clocks also have the same disruptive problem.

Essentially, our modern lives are not only making us physically tired, but irritable and mentally drained, too. After a limited periods of REM deprivation, study participants began to report mental-health issues, including anxiety, an increase in aggression, weight gain and bouts of hallucinations. Lab rats who undergo extended loss of REM sleep typically die within four to six weeks.

It’s can be hard to place value on sleep, but keeping a dream diary gave me a purpose. Sleeping became an activity to engage with, rather than time wasted

A nightly dream diary is one way we could all reconnect with our sleep cycles more. According to author of The Dream Game, Ann Faraday, keeping a diary can increase the chances of dream recall and make the process of dreaming seem like a worthwhile activity. Not a lot of importance is placed on dreaming in modern life, but since it’s so closely related to getting a good night’s kip, making it an integral part of our day may be good for all of us.

There are other reasons why dreaming could be important, too. Despite Freud’s obsession with repression and childhood trauma, he might have been on to something in his work on anxiety dreaming – those awful visions of falling, or speaking publicly in nothing but your knickers. He believed that we suffer from anxiety when our ego (our sense of self) has been overworked, and when we dream in this state our ego is reset to its original state. It’s a comforting theory and many psychoanalysts believe that anxiety dreams can act as a warning that we’re in “psychological danger”. They may not be pleasant at the time, but stress dreams could help us avoid more drastic problems in real life.

Remembering dreams is difficult, though – you have to be able to wake up (naturally) at an exact stage of REM – and recall it straight away. If you follow through into other stages of sleep, your dream will be lost. The trick is to set the intention that you will remember your dreams before you nod off (you don’t have to say it out loud, just make a little mental note).  When your brain realises you’re dreaming, you’ll wake up with the memory fresh in your mind, ready to be written down. It’s unlikely that you ever write novel-worthy paragraphs – my notes consist of one or two words at a time – but, with practice, dream diaries are apparently known to encourage lucid dreaming, where the dreamer realises they’re dreaming and can begin to control what happens.

It can be hard to place value on sleep, but keeping a dream diary gave  me a purpose. Sleeping became an activity to engage with, rather than time wasted. I probably won’t keep my diary up to date and sometimes I’ll forget to remember, but I have a newfound appreciation for sleep – one that my brain and body are thanking me for.

@emilyrbakes

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