Know Your Mind

Perspectives from clinical psychology

Afraid of Spiders? Try Sleeping on It

The therapist's couch may make an unexpected comeback—for taking a nap after sessions for phobias, anxiety and depression. Read More

In one of my Psychology

In one of my Psychology classes, we discussed the effects that dreaming has on mental health. We discussed a study that was conducted in which two groups (and a control group) were examined to observe the differences between people who were allowed to dream and those who weren't. The control group was allowed to sleep as usual. The first experimental group was allowed to sleep but woken up every time before they entered the dream stage of the sleep cycle. The second group was allowed to sleep through the dream stage and then woken up. After just a few cycles in all groups, the results became very clear. The group not allowed to enter the dream phase developed symptoms of those with insomnia and showed more signs of depression. They were irritable, shaky, unable to concentrate, and had several other anxious tendencies. At some point, some even had hallucinations. The group allowed to dream seemed much more well rested, showed few if none of the symptoms seen in the latter, and had a much better grip on reality, as well as more energy and focus to do tasks at hand. This study reveals that for whatever reason, dreaming is a crucial part of the sleep process, regardless of it being the shortest stage in the dream cycle, and the difficulty many have to recall these dreams even minutes after waking. It is possible this is a chance for our brain to process everything and defragment. Whatever the reason, it seems this could be a possible explanation as to why the method of sleeping directly after a CBT session seems to decrease the fear felt by the client. For many with Panic Disorder, the fear of having a panic attack becomes so strong, it actually induces a panic attack. It seems that most things creating anxiety to that level build up. It may only take minutes, but a person tends to grow more and more anxious the longer and longer they have to think about something. In a literature class I once had, our teacher discussed how in the world of cinema, a film which shows someone in a car, and then the screen goes black and you hear a gunshot tends to evoke more fear in the audience than one that shows the brain matter flying everywhere. This is because the second one limits our minds. The first one lets our imagination fill in what we believe happened, and the mind can conjure something far more fearful than what can be produced on a screen. That being said, those who receive CBT for fears and then watch a documentary directly afterwards probably dwell on the previous session, building up the spider images or said fear more and more in their mind, leaving them more afraid than they were during the actual encounter. Those that slept directly after did not have a chance for the anxiety to fully develop. Upon waking from sleep, (probably after dreaming) they more than likely felt hazy and the previous session felt like a distant memory that took several seconds to remember. This desensitizing of the anxiety felt by the fear and loss of full impact probably helped in the process of overcoming a particular fear.

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Daniel Freeman, Ph.D., is a professor of clinical psychology. Jason Freeman is a writer specialising in psychology.

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