Are Your Dreams Keeping You Awake?

Your brain may need help rewriting your dream script.

Posted Nov 02, 2015

Gearing up for and writing a 50,000-word novel in one month, as those participating in National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) attempt to do, could well be enough to create a riptide in the participant’s subconscious. Those riptides could then lead to disruptive dreams, or even nightmares, particularly if the aspiring writer creates unreasonable expectations and then pressures himself to meet them, or punishes himself when fulfillment falls short. While it’s admirable to write 50,000 words in one month, if you’re also working fulltime and/or have a family that requires tending, striving to write 1,600 words a day (50,000/30 = 1,666 words a day) may soon generate palpable anxiety.

Anxiety Seeks an Outlet

We spend some 60 to 70 percent of time spent sleeping dreaming, mostly processing daily stressors. When researchers wake up subjects while they are dreaming, some 75 percent of the emotions the subjects describe are negative. When slipping into REM sleep (when most, but not all, dreaming occurs), the limbic system (sensate and emotional centers) goes into overdrive, releasing lots of brain chemicals, much more so than when you’re awake, which is why dreams often involve scary scenarios. Our brains are processing negative emotions and fears on a regular, intensive basis—while we sleep.

Photo Courtesy of Joshua Earle, StockSnap
Source: Photo Courtesy of Joshua Earle, StockSnap

Try Imagery Therapy

A relatively new “imagery rehearsal” therapy (pioneered by Dr. Barry Krakow at the University of New Mexico School of Medicine) seeks ways to rewrite the frightful aspects of bad dreams to minimize and even completely eradicate ongoing sleep disturbance. It’s as easy as imagining a better scenario, rewriting the “script” in terms of what happens, or who’s in it (whether animal or human, monster or foe). Basically, the psychologist suggests that the dreamer change whatever they like (or find disturbing) and then visualize the revised “storyline” several times throughout the day. They do not recommend talking about nightmares, which can deepen anxiety, but choosing instead to focus thoughts and images on the newer, more positive version you are creating.

Psychologists who have used “imagery rehearsal” reported that the method helps 70 percent of people who try it. Some develop the ability to change the nightmare while it’s occurring, and others notice that their ingrained nightmares disappear altogether. This success comes after only two to three instructional sessions.

Why Visualization Works

Basically, when you create visualizations and meditate on them, your brain behaves as if what you are imagining is happening in real time. Just as it lays negative pathways when experiencing fear or stress, when visualizing positive experiences, it lays neural pathways related to the sunnier version. You go from giving your brain free rein to fall into a negative pathway or to create a new, positive pathway.

If self-created stress is causing fitful sleep, try visualizing yourself as happily writing, easily fulfilling your desired word counts, feeling energized rather than depleted. When visualizing, create “images” that reflect what you want to happen and use those images to replace any fear-based negativity or self-created stress.

And if that’s doesn’t help, maybe it’s time to reduce your daily writing goals to something easier for you to accomplish. Remember that NaNoWriMo is intended to be a positive, motivating experience, something that fosters a feeling of success and keeps your writing brain fired up.

Fire Up Your Writing Brain Tip: Remember that your brain likes to please you and the more you connect writing with pleasure, the better it will perform. Also, when you reward your brain immediately after writing, it releases the “feel-good” chemicals that make it eager for you to write again.

Susan Reynolds is the author of Fire Up Your Writing Brain: How to Use Proven Neuroscience to Become a More Creative, Productive, and Successful Writer. She also coauthored Train Your Brain to Get Happy, and Train Your Brain to Get Rich.