Dreaming Up a Good Mood

A solid night of sleep improves mood in healthy individuals... but the effect is different for those who are depressed.

By Camille Chatterjee, published September 1, 1999 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

Bad moods are the stuff dreams are made of, at least according to two new studies. Dreams can fix your foul disposition each night--and if you're depressed, dreams may predict whether you'll beat the blues within a year.

It's natural to wake up in the morning with a sunny outlook, relieved of the previous evening's worries. In fact, studies show that a solid night of sleep improves mood in healthy individuals.

But sleep's effects on healthy and depressed people are as different as night and day. People who are clinically depressed actually feel worse after snoozing, since they have more abstract, disorienting dreams.

This research led Rosalind Cartwright, Ph.D., director of the Sleep Research Center at Rush-Presbyterian-St. Luke's Medical Center in Chicago, to wonder how dreams allow our brains to repair our moods--and why this feel-good mechanism doesn't seem to work in the seriously depressed.

In the first of two studies published in the journal Psychiatry Research, Cartwright administered a mood test to mentally stable participants, monitored their slumber in a sleep lab for one night, then gave them a second mood test when they rose in the morning. During the night, the volunteers were awakened periodically and asked to describe the content of their dreams. Subjects were divided into two groups: one having neutral feelings before bedtime and one that was feeling low.

Cartwright found that subjects who'd been in neutral moods before nodding off saw little change in attitude when they woke. Subjects who were generally not depressed but went to bed in a bad mood, however, reported feeling much better after a good night's sleep.

And this change was reflected in their dreams: people whose disposition improved overnight reported experiencing more negative dreams at the beginning of the night and progressively fewer and fewer as sleep went on. Subjects in neutral moods saw no change in the content of their dreams.

"The study shows that mood does get regulated overnight," says Cartwright. "If you go to sleep with a bad mood, the brain goes to work right away on negative dream material at the beginning of the night so the bad mood has dissipated by the end of the night."

Next, Cartwright repeated the experiment, this time using volunteers who were depressed after a recent marital separation. While some downhearted subjects dreamed less about serious emotional content and more about lighter topics as the night progressed, others had more disturbing dreams just before waking than at the beginning of slumber.

Figuring that the former group was dreaming away their negative feelings each night, the researchers predicted that they would eventually work through their depression. And they were right--a follow-up study showed that 72% of the subjects in that group had fewer symptoms of depression one year later.

"The last dream of the night is the one that patients are most likely to remember," explains Cartwright.

So while the first group was actively working through their blues, resulting in more pleasant dreams at the end of the night and a brighter morning mood, those whose reveries got increasingly nightmarish were more likely to feel low when they woke.

Still, this finding has a silver lining: It allows therapists to predict which of their depressed clients need the most help. It also clues them in to the topics that disturb their clients most.

"If patients remember a bad dream," notes Cartwright, "then whatever that dream is about, that's what therapists should focus treatment on. The patient clearly isn't able to regulate their own mood, and therapists should work on that"--thus turning troubled visions into sweet dreams.

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