Is Mental Health a Strong Factor in the Brain’s Creation of Dreams?

Monday, March 30

By Jasmine Perez

Our waking brains are all different in their components; although if examined, an average normal brain possesses different functions which vary from a depressed brain’s functions. These particular differences are related to the changes in brain structure and chemistry causing mental health disorders that affect an individuals’ mood, thoughts, and behavior. If an individual isn’t receiving the correct amount of melatonin, which is one of the main chemicals involved with the process of REM sleep and dreams, then this can also lead to the creation of a variety of mental disorders such as anxiety, depression, schizophrenia, phobias, autism, and ADHD. Due to the increase in brain activity as an individual sleeps, it can be suggested that mental disorders affect the dreams that the brain produces while in REM sleep.  

Before discovering how dreams are affected by the mental state or the presence of mental illness, it must first be determined how the mental health of an individual is influenced by REM sleep and the dreams that occur. Researchers at the University of Geneva and the University Hospitals of Geneva published a study that concluded that dreams can be used to benefit those with phobias and anxiety disorders. During the study, participants that experienced high intensity dreams were more likely to confront psychological stress in a healthier approach. The individual, after having these dreams, is better equipped to deal with real-world difficulties after they’ve endured an anxiety-increased situation in their sleep altering the dream into a practice field to better prepare us for the unexpectedness of life. If the proper amount of REM sleep is acquired, the chances of developing PTSD are lower due to the process of emotions of events that are significant to the dreamer. (Breus, The Sleep Doctor) REM sleep can also generate creativity and problem-solving skills to make us better at recognizing others’ emotions and those who have not woken up from REM sleep have a notable difference in their ability to familiarize themselves with angry or happy expressions as proven by a 2010 study. (Breus, The Sleep Doctor) Dreaming has the remarkable ability to provide individuals with mental disorders or emotional trauma a form of accessible overnight therapy. As the individual’s mental state is studied further, it is proven that those with mental illnesses can benefit from dreaming, even though the dreams vary across the spectrum of those with and without proper mental health.  

There is a wide range of mental disorders signifying a variety of dream interpretations caused by the changes in brain chemistry. According to studies conducted by sleep researchers, it is demonstrated that individuals suffering from depression undergo dreams with a negative theme more often than others; meanwhile, people who have suicidal tendencies usually experience death in their dreams. However, depression can affect the dreams of an individual in multiple ways—some stating that they were confronted with a “neutral affect” in their dreams which might be linked to the idiosyncratic finding that is also discovered in those with schizophrenia. One study constantly awakened patients with diagnosed depression five minutes into REM sleep, which is normally a period that results in high dream recollection, but the depressed patients lacked the ability to remember their dreams. Differing from the dreams of a depressed patient, those with schizophrenia most often encounter increased hostility, strangers, and lack of presence of familiar surroundings in their dreams suggesting that the main character, as recognizable in those with schizophrenic tendencies, cannot connect with their environment. Similar to the differences between the dreams of an individual with depression and schizophrenia, borderline personality disorder (BPD) also contains its own unique characteristics consistent with the mindset of someone with BPD. Most of the nightmares encountered by a BPD patient are relative to the childhood trauma that may have been endured, which is also implicated in the evolution of the disorder. Due to the studies of disturbed dreaming, patterns are noted and used as “indicators of psychiatric progression.” (Carr, Psychology Today) On a broad perspective, evaluation of dreams can prove as a significant resource in psychopathology and can be used as a form of professional therapy in the near technological future.  

As an individual experiences the first stages of REM sleep, brain activity is increased leading to a variation of functions that result from mental illness. Depressed patients are frequently dreaming and because of the increased heart rate and active brain waves, they’re more prone to the exhaustion of dreaming. Despite this difficulty, sleeping can benefit the average person with mental illness due to the regulation of emotions functioned by the brain’s amygdala and hippocampus. Unfortunately, antidepressants can negatively impact the brain activity as the dreamer enters REM sleep and the effects include lack of recollection of dreams or the intensity in which the individual remembers the dream depending on the antidepressant. (Dusi, Barlati, Vita, Brambilla, Brain Structure) Considering most patients with mental illness are prescribed antidepressants, it’s safe to state that the majority of those with psychological disorders experience changes in their dreams and brain activity because of the chemicals involved in the narcotics given to improve someone’s brain chemistry. 

Within my research, it was discovered that the neuroscientific aspect of dreams in relation to an individual’s mental disorders or state is altered continuously throughout the wide range of illnesses. Dreaming, as such a complex cognitive state that has been so extensively studied has still always been so misunderstood. Many of the studies conducted by researchers comply with the ideation that one’s mental state can affect the brain’s process of dreams, although none provide the consistency of the differences in dreams compared to a depressed and normal brain—always varying. Dreams, as they generate from an unhealthy mental state, have a great deal of factors that rely on the severity of the diagnosis, medication being taken, and the experiences of an individual in which determine the outcome of the dream, itself.

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