Why Unwanted Thoughts Can Invade Your Dreams

Suppressing thoughts during the day may lead to their resurfacing in dreams.

Posted Nov 11, 2015

"Every action has an equal and opposite reaction." – Newton’s third law of physics.

A recent study entitled “Dreaming and personality: Wake-dream continuity, thought suppression, and the Big Five Inventory,” published in Consciousness and Cognition, assessed whether avoiding certain thoughts during the day might be paradoxically related to their intrusions in nighttime dream content.

The variable of interest—a personality trait termed "thought suppression"—measures an individual's tendency to suppress unwelcome or undesirable thoughts. In the study, Dr. Josie Malinowski of the University of Bedfordshire explored the possibility that individuals prone to frequent thought suppression during waking life might experience an ironic "rebound" effect during dreaming—that is, the return of the suppressed waking thought when one is asleep and dreaming.

ruigsantos/Shutterstock
Source: ruigsantos/Shutterstock

The idea that suppressing one thought while awake leads to a resurgence of that same thought during sleep has been supported to some extent in prior research—not to mention its parallels in Newtonian physics. For example, avoiding thoughts of a particular person prior to sleep was correlated with increased references to that person in subsequent dream reports, whereas freely thinking of someone prior to sleep did not lead to increased references in dreams (Wegner, Wenzlaff & Kozak, 2004).

In the new study, the author assessed characteristic thought suppression in a group of 106 participants, with an average age of 24, through the use of an online questionnaire, and then analyzed whether this trait was related to participants’ reports of their most recent dream recalled. Malinowski predicted that high thought suppressors would dream more of waking life concerns and emotions, as presumably these are the types of thoughts that are most typically suppressed in waking life.

Researchers measured characteristic thought suppression by using a simple questionnaire called the White Bear Suppression Inventory (Wegner & Zanakos, 1994), which asks participants to grade on a 1-to-5-point scale the degree to which they identify with certain habits of thought suppression:

  1. There are things I prefer not to think about.
  2. Sometimes I wonder why I have the thoughts I do.
  3. I have thoughts that I cannot stop.
  4. There are images that come to mind that I cannot erase.
  5. My thoughts frequently return to one idea.
  6. I wish I could stop thinking of certain things.
  7. Sometimes my mind races so fast I wish I could stop it.
  8. I always try to put problems out of mind.
  9. There are thoughts that keep jumping into my head.
  10. Sometimes I stay busy just to keep thoughts from intruding on my mind.
  11. There are things that I try not to think about.
  12. Sometimes I really wish I could stop thinking.
  13. I often do things to distract myself from my thoughts.
  14. I have thoughts that I try to avoid.
  15. There are many thoughts that I have that I don't tell anyone.
    (White Bear Suppression Inventory; Wegner & Zanakos, 1994)

In order to collect relevant dream details, participants agreed to write down, in detail, the most recent dream they recalled. The prompt specifically asked them to report:

“... a description of the setting of the dream, whether it was familiar to you or not; a description of the people, their age, sex, and relationship to you; any animals that appeared in the dream. If possible, describe your feelings during the dream and whether it was pleasant or unpleasant.”

Participants then estimated how much of the dream related to aspects of their waking life using a visual scale ranging from 0-100. For instance, they estimated how much overlap they saw between the dream and their waking life emotions, how similar (and different) the dream was from waking life, and the extent to which the dream touched on current financial, work-related, or relationship worries.

Analyses of the whole sample revealed that, in general, people dream more of their current waking life than of the past, and that they also dream most of relationship worries, followed by work-related concerns, and lastly financial issues.

Correlations assessed the extent to which thought suppression related to dreaming of waking life as well as of the three categories of current concerns (relationship, work/study, financial). As expected, participants assessed as high thought suppressors dreamed more of waking life emotions. Presumably, suppressing unwanted emotional thoughts during the day led to a rebound effect, in which the emotional content arose in dreams. Further, there was a correlation between thought suppression and dreaming of current relationship worries, suggesting that avoiding confronting relationship troubles during the day may lead to their resurfacing in dreams.

However, this correlation did not remain after controlling for participant age and dream report length. There was no correlation with either work-related or financial worries, although the generally lower occurrence of these worries in dream reports may account for this.

In sum, the findings replicate prior research showing that people dream about current waking life more than the past, and they dream more of relationship and interpersonal issues rather than work and financial problems. These results in themselves point to a potential function of dreaming in working through currently relevant emotional and social concerns.

Further, individuals high in thought suppression reported higher incidences of dreaming about current waking life emotions. On the one hand, it may be undesirable to dream about the very issues you struggle to avoid during the day. This can be a problem especially if your worries are unfounded—for example, a fear of abandonment may lead to dreams of your partner being unfaithful or leaving you, which only serves to re-enforce unhealthy attachments. On the other hand, your sleeping mind may be able to work through problems that your conscious mind does not want to think about (see more on that here).

In either case, if suppressed thoughts fight their way into your dreams, it's probably a good time to confront them.

References

  • Malinowski, Josie E. "Dreaming and personality: Wake-dream continuity, thought suppression, and the Big Five Inventory." Consciousness and cognition 38 (2015): 9-15.
  • Wegner, Daniel M., and Sophia Zanakos. "Chronic thought suppression."Journal of personality 62.4 (1994): 615-640.
  • Wegner, Daniel M., Richard M. Wenzlaff, and Megan Kozak. "Dream Rebound The Return of Suppressed Thoughts in Dreams." Psychological Science 15.4 (2004): 232-236.