If you’re a fan of the show Friends, you may remember the episode where Phoebe is mad at Ross, and nobody – including Phoebe – knows exactly why (click here for a short video of the key scenes).
And when they finally figure out a strategy to find out why she’s mad, it turns out that she was mad because Ross said she was boring – as they were playing chess on a frozen lake, right before he took off his energy mask, revealing that he was actually Cameron Diaz.
Needless to say, this is when Phoebe realized that this had all happened in a dream. And while I’m assuming you haven’t experienced anything like this exactly, I imagine you have had the occasional bad dream or nightmare that carried over into your mental and emotional state when you woke up in the morning.
Which is not such a huge deal on regular days, since the aftereffects of our dreams generally begin to fade away once we down our breakfast smoothie and get immersed in our favorite podcast on the way to work.
But having nightmares or distressing dreams in the days leading up to a big performance or audition can feel a little different. Something about these dreams can feel more real, and more like signs or a foreshadowing of what’s to come. Which can make it challenging to stay in a positive, optimistic headspace when we most need to.
But a recent study suggests that bad dreams could actually be a helpful thing – at least when it comes to handling fear and anxiety more effectively.
A dream study
A team of researchers (Sterpenich, Perogamvros, Tononi, & Schwartz, 2019) conducted a series of studies to look more closely at how the brain responds to fear-related events when one is awake, after having experienced scary dreams in one’s sleep.
A dream diary…
They started by having 89 participants complete a dream diary for a week, where every morning, they answered a series of questions about their dreams, and reported any emotions they experienced in the dream – from anger to embarrassment, joy, and fear.
At the end of the week, they were put into an MRI machine, which scanned their brain while they were shown a series of images.
And distressing images
Some images were emotionally neutral, but others were emotionally charged in a negative way – like a photo of a negative facial expression, or a picture of an assault or other distressing situation.
The idea was to see if experiencing fear in one’s dreams would be associated with any difference in the activation pattern of their brains when shown these distressing images when awake.
The researchers also measured the participants’ pupil size during the presentation of the images, as a way to gauge their level of emotional arousal. In that when we experience a fight-or-flight response, our pupils tend to dilate.
So if the participants’ pupils dilated, it would suggest they had a heightened reaction to the photo, whereas if their pupils did not dilate, it would suggest that the photo didn’t trigger much of a response.
So was there any relationship between the experience of fear in their dreams and their emotional reactivity to distressing pictures when awake?
Differences in pupil response
Indeed there was.
The more fear participants experienced in their dreams, the less of a pupil response they had when shown negatively charged photos. In other words, those who had more exposure to scary experiences in dreams, seemed to be better equipped to regulate their reaction to threatening stimuli when awake.
Differences in brain activation
There was also a difference in the participants’ brain activation.
Those who experienced more fear in their dreams had less activation in the structures of the brain often associated with processing fear and the perception of negative emotions (insula, anterior cingulate gyrus, and amygdala). As well as more activation in a part of the brain that is thought to regulate or modulate our emotions – to help us avoid freaking out, in other words (medial prefrontal cortex).
So what does this all mean?
Threat simulation theory
Well, research in the last couple of decades has led to several theories, such as the “threat simulation theory,” which suggests that our dreams may actually have a positive purpose. That they give us an opportunity to virtually “pre-experience” situations in a safe, no-stakes environment, so that we’re better prepared to handle such situations when they happen in real life.
Kind of like a trial performance or mock audition, but just in your mind.
Of course, research is still developing in this area. And the data from this study, while intriguing, doesn’t necessarily establish a clear cause-and-effect link between our dreams and how we react to stressful experiences when awake.
Then there’s the fact that seeing a picture of something stressful, and living through that thing yourself are very different levels of experience.
And it’s not like you can will yourself to have an anxiety dream about your upcoming audition anyway (although this does seem to happen with some regularity, as a study of elite German athletes found that about 15% of athletes did experience distressing dreams about upcoming competitions).
So at first glance, this may not seem like the most useful audition or performance hack you’ve ever come across.
Dismissing bad dreams
But I can remember a few performances where having bad dreams in the days leading up to them kind of threw me off. Where they made me question my preparation, and heightened my anxiety, because I was worried that the dream meant something. That it was a sign of what was to come.
But if I could go back in time to one of these moments, I think knowing about studies like this would have made it easier to dismiss the dream and move on. Where instead of dwelling on the dream, and letting it feed into my anxieties or worries, I’d be able to interpret the dream instead as a helpful experience, and tell myself that it was like a bonus mock audition that I had while sleeping, and that I’ll be that much better prepared to deal with the stress of the day because of it.
Dealing with nightmares
Bad dreams are one thing, but if you’re having panic-inducing nightmares that wake you up in a cold sweat, this might call for a different intervention strategy.
Although dealing with this kind of experience goes beyond the scope of this post, one of my clinical supervisors in grad school described an approach known as “dream reorganization” that research suggests can be helpful, especially with recurring nightmares.
The idea is to write out an alternate ending to the nightmare. One that makes it feel less scary. Whether it’s imaging a director saying “cut” and realizing that the dream was just a scene in a movie that you were acting in, or suddenly discovering your hidden superhero powers, creating a positive-feeling ending to the nightmare is something you can script in advance and practice using, so that the next time you have the nightmare, you can change the ending and the way it feels when you wake up.
Whether you’re having nightmares yourself, or are trying to help your little one work through their nightmares, you can learn more about how to do this here: DBT Nightmare Protocol