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....Perchance to dream

August 9th 2021

In the last Blog I looked at some of the ways that we can optimise the conditions that are conducive to a good night’s sleep. In this Blog I want to explore one of the most fascinating aspects of sleep: Dreaming.

The average person dreams many times during each sleep period, though not everyone remembers their dreams. Even those who do remember dreaming will quickly forget the dream content within a few minutes of waking, unless they make a determined effort to retain the dream narrative, by writing it down or recounting it to another person.

A question that has perplexed people for a long time is this: Do dreams fulfil any useful function, or are they just random brain activity that serves no purpose? The findings sleep researchers indicate that dreams do indeed perform a vital function, in that they allow our sleeping brain to process the events of the previous day, particularly those events that have emotional significance.

The pioneering sleep scientist Rosalind Cartwright, known affectionately by her colleagues as the “Queen of Dreams”, conducted a landmark 25 year study on the relationship between dreaming and mood, by looking specifically at a particular group of people: those who were going through the major disruption of divorce. In the sleep lab she would waken her subjects as they were entering REM sleep, the phase of sleep that is most closely related to dreaming, and ask them to recount any dreams. By this process she discovered that those subjects who dreams reflected their waking concerns around the divorce, fared better in their overall mood than those who did not. Although they typically reported disturbing dreams in the early part of the night, they had more positive dreams in the second half of the night, and also better mood the following morning.

These findings suggest that for some people dreaming diffuses the emotional charge of disturbing events and so prepares them to wake ready to see things in a more positive light. 

From her many years of careful study Cartwright devised a method of dream therapy which involves learning how to remember dreams, and use simple effective strategies for “rewriting” better dreams, to help resolve depression and anxiety brought on by disturbing life events. She outlined these methods in her books “Crisis Dreaming” and “The Twenty-Four Hour Mind”.

Cartwright also writes about what happens when the healing potential of dreams breaks down as in the case of those very scary dreams that we call nightmares. When a nightmare is so frightening that it wakes the sleeper, the processing power of the dream in interrupted, and never reached a satisfactory conclusion. 

So one strategy for dealing with this is to actively confront the nightmare images with the intention of changing the ending to one in which the dreamer is in control. This idea has been refined by other people working in the field and has been called the “Dream Completion Technique”. One proponent is the therapist Dr Justin Havens who has produced a useful animated video that illustrates the steps of the technique. This is available at: https://tinyurl.com/bxmw6upu

What all this point to is a confirmation of the folk wisdom of old – that our dreams can help us to process our waking emotions and thus act as a healing balm. From this perspective we can, if we wish, learn to optimise this healing process by listening to what our dreams are telling us, and if necessary re-scripting the narrative in a healthy direction.

Top Tips for Better Sleep

July 30th 2021

Good quality sleep is essential for both physical and mental wellbeing. Our periods of shut eye allow vital repair work to take place for the body and brain, boosting the immune system, while our periods of dream sleep are involved in mental housekeeping and memory consolidation. 

Sleep and dreaming have a vital role in our emotional lives, so addressing sleep issues plays an important part in maintaining health and vitality.

Here are my top tips for better sleep:

• Keep the bedroom clear of work-related items, mobile phones, computers, TVs and other electrical devises, or anything that is associated with wakefulness. Obviously if you have a mobile phone in the bedroom and it is left switched on there is always the danger that alerts and pings will disturb sleep. Even if it is switched off, the very fact that it is sitting there by the bed can be a distraction, so better to keep it in another room. If you have been using a phone alarm to wake you, get an alarm clock instead and ideally turn it around so that you cannot see it. This avoids any temptation to keep looking at it to check how long you have been awake.

• Ensure that your bedroom is conducive to sleep at night time. Consider the ways that you can keep it dark enough, quiet enough, and at an optimum temperature. Use black out curtains or an eye mask if the sunlight wakes you up too early in the morning.

• During the daytime make a point of spending some time outdoors. This will ensure that you get sufficient daylight exposure as well as exercise, both of which will improve sleep.

• In the late evening reduce your exposure the blue-spectrum light that is emitted from computer screens, or download an app that filters out blue light.

• Eat regular meals and don’t go to bed hungry. Also avoid large meals late at night as a large meal can cause indigestion that interferes with sleep. Drinking too many fluids at night can cause frequent awakenings to urinate.

• Avoid coffee or other caffeinated drinks in the late afternoon and evening. Similarly any other stimulants such as nicotine.

• It is also best to moderate any alcohol consumption, especially in the late evening. Although an alcoholic “nightcap” may induce sleep, it also tends to cause waking later in the night, and the quality of sleep will be inferior.

• Find healthy ways to deal with daytime stress such as exercise, yoga, tai chi, or mindfulness meditation.

• Don’t take any worries to bed with you. Do your thinking, planning and working during the day. In the evening write down a list of any pressing concerns on a sheet of paper and put it to one side.

• Get up at the same time each day, 7 days a week. If you have a daytime nap limit this to 45 minutes and don’t take it later than 4pm.

• Before bedtime allow time for unwinding. A relaxing activity such as reading or listening to music can be part of your bedtime ritual. A warm bath will relax you. Your body temperature will start to cool down afterwards which induces sleep.

• At night time, if you don’t go to sleep after 30 minutes of turning out the light, or if you awaken during the night and don’t go back to sleep within that time, get up out of bed and go to another room. There engage in a quiet relaxing activity such as reading a book or magazine, or work on a jigsaw or do some light housework, until you feel drowsy again at which point go back to bed. (In medieval times it was common for people to have a wakeful period in the middle of the night known as “the watch” and this was considered normal).

• Progressive muscle tensing/relaxation, from toes upwards through the different muscle groups lowers cortisol, the bodies' stress hormone, and induces relaxation.