How Suppressed Emotions Enter Our Dreams and Affect Health

Research on dreaming informs the discussion of cultivating emotional balance.

Posted Jan 17, 2018

Your vision will become clear only when you can look into your own heart. Who looks outside, dreams; who looks inside, awakes.

                            —Carl Jung

What happens when we put something out of our minds? What happens when we shut down that “negative” emotional state and get on with the day without giving it another thought? There is a tension between models of personal change that emphasize focusing on positive, constructive thoughts and moving away from negative thoughts, and those which counsel that engaging with ostensibly negative and unpleasant thoughts is necessary for personal development.

Can we "get rid" of thoughts? What happens when we believe we are throwing away mental garbage? It's one thing to stop ourselves from engaging in futile masochism or interrupt obsessive thoughts. It's another thing entirely to try to ignore important parts of oneself, joyful or melancholy. Like the global ecosystem, the ecology of the psyche dictates that we can't quite get rid of things. We push feelings into unconsciousness, but they remain implicit, having impact on our unconscious waking process and emerging in the evening. We can suppress, medicate and ignore our dreams, but when we do so we may be risking missing out on ultimately necessary and catalytic experiences required at times for personal development.

You can run, but you can't hide

Prior research (Malinowski 2015) has confirmed the relevance of “dream rebound”. When we suppress waking thoughts, they show up in our dreams. A recent study builds on that prior work to look at whether there is a difference in dream rebound for suppressors of positive versus negative emotions, whether this affects sleep quality, and relates to experiencing depression, anxiety or stress.

Study design

Sixty-two participants participated in the study, 70 percent women, averaging 27 years old, about half university students from the UK and half recruited from social media platforms. With the stipulation that they had dreamed recently and were discussing their most recent dream (MRD), they completed a battery of questionnaires.

Questions about the MRD:

  1. "Thinking about this dream, how much of it do you see as being related to emotions you have experienced in waking life?"
  2. "Which of the following emotions did your dream contain? Tick all that apply" (tick boxes for happiness, sadness, anger, fear, love, anxiety, guilt, awe, and lust)
  3. "To what extent does your dream relate to waking-life (happiness/sadness/anger/fear/love/anxiety/guilt/awe/lust) that you have  experienced?" 
  4. “How often do you experience a recurrent dream? A recurrent dream is a dream that repeats the same content over and over again.”
  5. “How often do you experience a lucid dream? A lucid dream is a dream in which you are aware you are dreaming, and may have some control over what happens in the dream.”
  6. “How often do you experience a nightmare? A nightmare is a very unpleasant, often scary, dream, in which the emotion is so strong that it wakes you up.”

In addition, they completed the 1) 15-item White Bear Suppression Inventory, an assessment for how much they tend to suppress thoughts or experience intrusive thoughts, 2) the the Pittsburgh Sleep Quality Index, and 3) the 21-item Depression, Anxiety and Stress Scale.

Findings

Participants who suppressed thoughts expressed within dreams more negative thoughts from waking life compared with lower suppressors. They endorsed greater levels of sadness, anger, fear and anxiety. They did not report increased feelings of guilt, happiness, love, awe or lust within their dreams. Likewise, people whose thoughts tended to be more intrusive when they were awake reported dreaming more only of waking-life sadness, anger and anxiety. They did not find an association with thought suppression or intrusion on frequency of lucid dreams, recurrent dreams or nightmares.

In addition, people with higher degrees of thought suppression and thought intrusion had poorer sleep quality as evidenced by subjective report, difficulty falling asleep, sleep disturbance, use of sleep medication, and daytime tiredness. Those with greater tendencies toward thought suppression and thought intrusion had higher levels of depression, anxiety and stress.

Further considerations

Overall, researchers found that there was a greater tendency for negative waking thoughts to manifest within dreams, specifically sadness, anxiety, anger and fear. This provides evidence that dream rebound is stronger for negative emotional states than for positive emotional states. Positive emotional states did not significantly carry over into dream-life. Furthermore, suppression of negative waking feelings was associated with poorer sleep quality and correlated with depression, anxiety and stress.

It will be useful to see if these findings are replicated in future research. Notably, guilt during the day was not correlated with dream experiences. Perhaps in a larger sample, guilt would be more evident within dreams. Perhaps guilt is too complex, or requires greater wakefulness, as one of the "self-conscious" emotions, and would either wake up the sleeper, or possibly appear in lucid dreams.

This research is interesting for several reasons, and informs clinical thinking. First, it suggests that therapeutic efforts directed toward engaging with negative thoughts in healthy ways may have positive effects on sleep quality and mental health. As a therapist, this is important to me because it speaks to the potential utility of being mindful of negative emotions we might otherwise push out of awareness, and approaching intrusive negative thoughts with curiosity and openness.

Second, it has implications for improving sleep quality directly. For instance, when I discuss sleep habits with patients, I often hear stories about how people wait until they are so tired they just crash, distracting themselves with television or other activities until they pass out. A few hours later, they often wake up and have difficulty falling asleep again. They report feeling anxiety ranging from vague to specific worries and ruminations. This phenomenon highlights the familiar relationship between daytime suppression and nocturnal intrusion.

I often recommend addressing these thoughts about an hour before bedtime, either via free-form journaling which includes emphasizing emotional states, or more structured approaches. While this is sometimes called “symptom prescription”, I believe it is much more than that when done well. It is not only an opportunity to vent negative emotions and make plans to address problems the next day, clearing the way for restful sleep, but it is also a chance to work on self-narrative, building a sense of continuity through thoughtful self-reflection. Future research on dreams could look at whether such interventions reduce the presence of negative emotions in dreams.

This research also suggests that the practice of working with dreams in waking-life may be valuable, either on one’s own or during therapy which includes dream analysis, prototypically psychoanalysis as spelled out in Freud’s seminal work, The Interpretation of Dreams. If important but uncomfortable emotions get shunted into dreams, then therapeutic attention to dreams may be, as Freud put it, the “royal road to the unconscious”. People who cannot bear to discuss challenging emotions during wakefulness may nevertheless have the opportunity to work through them by proxy, in the form of dream analysis. Mindfulness practice, already recognized as having meaningful therapeutic potential, may be of particular use in addressing negative emotions constructively, as an antidote for and alternative to suppression and intrusion.

This research brings into relief the interconnections among daytime coping style, dream-life, sleep quality, and well-being. These are all elements of the broader landscape of self-care, reflecting the condition of our overall relationship with ourselves. We can also assist one another in working on healthier sleep routines. For example, couples can come to an agreement about how to approach bedtime so that it is optimized for them both, and so that they remind one another to stick with better sleep hygiene.

For some, addressing negative emotions more directly, either through learning not to suppress as well as engaging differently with intrusive thoughts, may be helpful. For others, negative feelings may be connected with overwhelming feelings of distress and pain, including traumatic experiences. Simply trying to confront them without additional help may be counterproductive and lead to further avoidance, under some circumstances.

Regardless, it is prudent to reconsider advice to consciously steer clear of negative thoughts and feelings as they may come back to haunt us in the evening, and foreclose on necessary growth opportunities. If we can feel gratitude and compassion toward ourselves, the task of engaging with the less immediately desirable aspects of who we are becomes more rewarding. By approaching "negative" emotions with a positive outlook, we can avoid the mistake of seeing emotional experiences through an either-or lens, and find balance working through emotions to get unstuck.

References

Malinowski, J. (2017, November 9). High Thought Suppressors Dream More of Their Negative Waking-Life Experiences Than Low Thought Suppressors. Dreaming. Advance online publication. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/drm0000061

Malinowski, J. E. (2015). Dreaming and personality: Wake-dream continuity, thought suppression, and the Big Five Inventory. Consciousness and Cognition, 38, 9–15. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.concog.2015 .10.004