How Bad Dreams Can Help You Solve Your Problems

Research explores whether dreams and nightmares serve a function.

Posted Aug 26, 2015

How are dreams functional in emotional problem solving?

Lucky Business/Shutterstcok
Source: Lucky Business/Shutterstcok

Researchers generally agree that dreaming is related to the emotional stresses and hassles of daily life, with findings showing that dreams often revolve around current concerns and worries, particularly those running through your mind prior to sleep. General levels of waking stress are correlated with an increase in negative dream emotions (Koulack, 1993; Stewart & Koulack, 1993). Beyond this correlational relationship, though, several authors have proposed that dreams actually serve a functional role by allowing active confrontation with emotional problems and providing creative resolutions—all while we sleep.

REM sleep is a unique, hyper-associative state during which your mind accesses a range of memories, thoughts, and creative problem-solving skills not as easily accessible in the structured confines of waking thought. In this way, dreams may lead to novel solutions to current emotional problems and thereby help to reduce stress upon awakening. Several experiments have attempted to verify if this theoretical function of REM sleep is true, although initial findings were somewhat conflicting. For example, some authors found that stressor-related dream content was associated with an overnight reduction in negative mood, or an overnight improvement in positive mood (M Kramer, Moshiri, & Scharf, 1982; Schredl, 2010; Milton Kramer, 1993). On the other hand, some evidence showed the opposite, that dreaming of a stressor had a negative impact on the next day’s mood.

The question of whether dreaming of a conflict is associated with better or worse mood may depend critically on whether or not potential solutions are provided within the dream (Koulack, 1993). In this line of thought, one study looked for the presence of a negatively toned problem both prior to sleep and within dream content, first confirming that pre-sleep problems were frequently incorporated into dreams (Greenberg, Katz, Schwartz, and Pearlman, 1992). Subsequently, the authors analyzed whether subjects who dreamed of the problem felt better or worse upon awakening. The authors found that if the dream presented possible solutions to the problem, then subjects felt relieved and had improved mood following awakening. If the dream did not offer any resolution, however, subjects maintained a persistent negative mood upon awakening. These complementary findings support the hypothesis that problem solving provided by dreams is key in overnight adaptation to stress.

While problem solving may occur within a single dream experience, it is likely that dream content influences emotional memory adaptation gradually over time and successive REM periods. This is particularly relevant when the stressor is related to a major change in life, e.g. divorce, and thus necessitates a significant reorganization of emotional memory. A study by Cartwright (1996) showed specifically that recently divorced women who initially exhibited more negative dreams involving their ex-husband were actually less depressed one year later than women who had not experienced such dreams. Thus, the incorporation of this stress-related content may have led to a gradual mood regulation process over time.

To what extent are nightmares functional?

While researchers generally agree that emotional and even negative dreams may be adaptive for dealing with stress, there is disagreement over whether nightmares maintain a functional role in this process. Some theories propose that nightmares can be adaptive: Nightmares have been likened to a form of flooding or exposure therapy in the sense that they may force you to confront painful or traumatic memories you might otherwise repress (Rothbaum & Mellman, 2001). In fact, the sudden awakening which occurs from a nightmare may practically force an emotional issue into waking consciousness. Subsequently, reflecting on the nightmare and being aware of feelings and memories that arise during this reflection may allow for novel resolution and understanding of an underlying emotional problem. Thus, while the nightmare itself may not provide a resolution, nightmare awakening may still be functional in that it can signal to the conscious mind to deal with an emotional conflict the dreaming mind may have failed to resolve.

Unfortunately, despite this potential advantage of occasional nightmares, regular or recurrent nightmares are more likely indicative of psychopathology and emotion dysregulation. For the majority of individuals, frequent nightmares (more than two per week) and repetitive and recurrent themes in their nightmares has been associated with higher levels of distress and lower psychological well-being, and the dreams themselves are even more negatively charged than non-recurrent dreams (Zadra, O'Brien, & Donderi, 1997). Further, in comparison to the progressive resolution expressed in dreams and bad dreams, which contributes to emotion regulation, frequent and recurrent nightmares seem to repetitively present an emotional conflict without any evidence of change or resolution. 

To sum up:

  1. Dreams can provide creative solutions to current emotional problems.
  2. Over time, dreams help you adapt to significant life changes, such as divorce. 
  3. Nightmares may be functional in that they force the waking mind to confront emotional conflicts.
  4. However, recurrent nightmares reflect a failure to resolve an ongoing emotional problem.