Do you wake up sometimes after the most bizarre dream and wonder if it has any meaning? And while we’re on the subject, have you ever wondered what stage of sleep you dream in? As professional sleep coach Beatrix Schmidt (opens in new tab), author of The Sleep Deep Method, explains, “there are many misconceptions about sleep, dreams and their connections.
“Our dreams are linked to our thoughts and emotions, both positive and negative. It is important to be curious about dreams, but remember that like our thoughts, dreams are not facts and so do not obsess or stress over them.”
Here Schmidt chats to TechRadar about dreams – at what stage of sleep they happen in, why we dream, and whether dreams have meaning, especially the recurring ones.
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What stage of sleep do you dream in?
There are various phases of sleep: REM, rapid eye movement sleep, and non-REM sleep or SWS, slow-wave sleep. Most of your dreaming occurs during REM sleep, although some can occur in SWS.
The most vivid dreams occur in REM sleep where brain wave EEG analysis shows the brain is very active, especially in the hippocampus (the memory area) and amygdala (the emotion, fear and stress response processing area).
“In my practice working with clients who struggle with insomnia, waking up from a sleep stage and remembering dreams can cause a lot of discomfort especially when waking up to them in the middle of the night.” Schmidt reveals.
“As I explain to my clients, it’s not as much about the exact science of dreams but more about how you respond to your experience of dreams.”
Why do we dream? What function do they serve?
The exact role of dreams is unknown. However, as Schmidt says: “Dreams are important as they help us reconcile information. They help us process memories and learn and deal with what happened during the day.”
Like Matthew Walker, author of Why We Sleep, she describes dreams as a “filing of information” from the day, helping us learn and investigate things we read, thought about, saw, and felt that day.
Does dreaming mean you’re getting good sleep?
This is a really common question, but the answer isn’t black and white, says Schmidt. “The connection between great quality sleep and dreaming is not direct. Just because you are dreaming does not mean your sleep is better or worse. Just because you remember your dream does not mean you are sleeping better.
“We always dream – it’s part of natural sleep – we just may not remember it.” Schmidt continues. “Dreaming is not a moment you can choose to ‘catch’ and be in full control over, but think of it more as a part of what happens during sleep, just like your body’s recovery overnight. We remember dreams from when we transition between two sleep phases, but you cannot control this.”
Do dreams have meaning or should we ignore them?
Sigmund Freud, the prominent neurologist, described in his 1953 book, The Interpretation of Dreams (opens in new tab), his belief that dreams are a key to access a person’s inner world. He believed dreams showed suppressed emotions and fears. However, says Schmidt, “Dreams seem to have a meaning to us based upon our personal situation, but that does not mean it it is a premonition.
“From my perspective, dreams do not have a direct meaning. Some people see real meaning in dreams and therefore the outcomes may become self-fulfilling prophecies. We have power over what happens in our life, the outcomes and therefore can alter the outcome of our life events.
There may even be a more simple explanation for the specific dreams we have. “If you go to bed with a worry, you are likely to dream about it. For example, if you are worried about a meeting at work going wrong, it is likely you will dream about the meeting at night.” Schmidt reasons. “However, just because the dream happened, it does not mean it will unfold this way.”
Are recurring dreams trying to tell us something?
Many people experience recurring dreams. Often these follow a theme such as flying, falling, losing your teeth or missing an important test. “The purpose of recurring dreams can be that the mind is continuing to entertain or explore a situation or scenario that has not been resolved yet,” Schmidt clarifies.
“Recurring dreams are not always negative – they can be excitement or hopes too. It can be a sign that we need to accept, let go of, wrap up or conclude a positive excitement or negative fear or stress that is persisting in our thoughts.”
“It’s important not to draw too deep meaning from dreams as this can lead to increased anxiousness about sleep or even cause sleep problems,” Schmidt cautions. “Be curious about dreams but not obsessive or overly analytical, and don’t see them as automatic truths.”
What is lucid dreaming and can everyone do it?
Lucid dreaming is when you are aware that you are dreaming and can control the theme and outcomes of the dream. Lucid dreaming occurs in about 4% of dreaming according to LaBerge, 2007 (opens in new tab), as your brain cycles through non-REM sleep to REM sleep.
Most of the time lucid dreaming occurs as someone wakes up approximately five hours into deep REM sleep and when conscious, changes their thoughts and goes back to sleep.
But before you set an alarm for half-way through the night, Schmidt strongly warns against it: “I do not recommend deliberately waking yourself up during sleep to try and remember and control the theme of a dream, as this can cause you sleep problems and disrupt your natural sleep patterns.”
“Over analysing your dreams does not help you to directly improve your sleep or reduce anxieties, whether linked to positive or negative emotions.” Schmidt explains. “It is more important to relax and prepare for sleep physically, emotionally, and mentally so that your dreams do not disrupt your sleep or life. It is not about the dream but how you respond to it.
“We need to be relaxed about our dream experiences, so we are not stressed during the day or night and are more able to think logically, learn and process emotions.”
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This article is part of TechRadar's Sleep Week 2022 (running from Sunday 13 to Saturday 19 March), a week-long celebration of all things slumber. We'll be bringing you proven techniques and tips to help you sleep better, and have rounded-up all the top-rated tech to transform your sleep.