Everyone would agree that a good night's sleep is essential to health and productivity. But did you know a good night's dreaming is also pivotal to physical, emotional, and even spiritual well-being?
Studies reported by Scientific American have shown that dreams play an important part in memory and one's ability to process complex emotions. Additional research has found dreams to be an essential component of creativity and problem solving.
No one knows for sure why we dream, but theories abound: sorting out the day's activities, letting repressed emotions and desires surface, integrating new information into our existing data banks, cleaning out mental and emotional "clutter" from our lives.
"We tend to look at dreaming as a subservient type of consciousness, yet what we know about dreaming scientifically, and spiritually, is that it is much more than that. When people don't dream well, they have memory problems, and even increased depression. People who don't dream well, don't grow," says Dr. Rubin Naiman, internationally recognized sleep and dream expert and clinical assistant professor of medicine at the University of Arizona's Center for Integrative Medicine. He is also the author Healing Night: The Science and Spirit of Sleeping, Dreaming and Awakening," and the director of Circadian Health Associates.
In scientific research, psychologists found that subjects who were deprived of their dreams during deep rapid eye movement (REM) sleep experienced patterns that looked exactly like dream patterns seen in patients with clinical depression.
Dreams also promote emotional healing, and people who dream more heal quicker. Even nightmares can promote healing. A person works out trauma unconsciously, such as in Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder nightmares," Dr. Naiman says.
In terms of physical benefits, dreaming can be called nature's Botox. It produces deep relaxation of muscles, including facial muscles, supporting the idea of beauty sleep that women so often joke about.
But in order to dream well, one must sleep well, and that is where modern culture has left a negative impact. So much so that Dr. Naiman has coined the word twired to describe the condition of being simultaneously tired and wired.
There are two main reasons why people are twired: 1) societal pressure to be productive and avoid getting left behind by those moving faster, and 2) physical and psychological hyperarousal, fueled by stress and anxiety. Hyperarousal produces racing brain waves, a rapid heart rate, over-heated core body temperature, and dysfunctional hormonal rhythms.
"We live in a culture where there is a lot of pressure to move, think, talk, and act very quickly. Most people who struggle with insomnia think they can't sleep because they aren't sleepy, but the truth is they are excessively wakeful or hyperaroused," Dr. Naiman says.
Furthermore, studies have shown that the late night use of electronics—which emit blue light—such as computer screens, tablets, and smart phones, lower levels of the hormone melatonin. Melatonin regulates sleep and hyperstimulates brain activity. This disruption interferes with one's ability to fall asleep.
While this is detrimental to the individual who can't sleep, Dr. Naiman believes it is also collectively hazardous to society. "The widespread chronic loss of dreaming is an unrecognized public and a spiritual health hazard that is silently wreaking havoc with our lives," he writes in his new book, Hush.
"We are dreaming less and less because of our modern lifestyle. We live in a world where people consume too much alcohol, which interferes with REM sleep and dreaming. Also, some of the most commonly used medications [for sleep disorders] significantly suppress dreaming," he believes.
Lack of sleep is a bigger problem for women than for men. The National Sleep Association reports that women suffer more insomnia and sleep disturbances than men (63 percent versus 54 percent). Half of all women surveyed say they wake up feeling unrefreshed. One in three women said they get a good night's sleep only a few times a month. Women also have sleep disturbances that are influenced by their menstrual cycle, pregnancy, and menopause. And, as mothers know, sleep deprivation comes with the job description. Kristen Banks, fourth-grade teacher and new mom can attest to that.
"I can definitely say that I am not getting the sleep I need since becoming a mom. Luckily for me, my two month-old daughter began sleeping through the night at five weeks. However, sleeping is not the same for me as it was pre-motherhood," Kristen says. "I typically get between five to six hours a night, which sounds pretty good, but that sleep is interrupted with short bursts of crying because the pacifier fell out, or my daughter had a bad dream and needs a quick rub on her belly or back."
The Barna Group reported that, while very satisfied with their lives, "80 percent of moms feel overwhelmed by stress (compared to 72 percent among all women), and 70 percent say they do not get enough rest (compared to 58 percent of all women). The study also states that 62 percent of moms, and 59 percent of all women, are dissatisfied with their work/home balance, and 56 percent of moms and 48 percent of all women feel overcommitted.
"Women are living in a time period where the expectations have doubled. So many women feel pressure to do family life and work life well that many become hyperaroused. By the time they get to bed, their brain is spinning and they can't sleep well," Dr. Naiman says. Consequently, they dream less, and that can lead to tension and mood swings.
There isn't an easy answer for women who struggle with sleep and dream deficiencies because of their multiple responsibilities, Dr. Naiman acknowledges. But one place to start is by addressing the big questions of the quality of life and spiritual connections, apart from the sleep issues themselves.
"Making more money, dressing my kids in nicer clothes, or owning a bigger TV is not going to lead to fulfillment," Dr. Naiman says. "It is a spiritual question we have to ask ourselves about our happiness and inner peace. Surrendering to sleep is an act of faith, believing that someone is watching over me. It is a willingness to let go [of stress and anxiety] and have faith in something greater than ourselves."
In addition to exploring those deeper questions, there are also some practical tips for getting a better night's sleep, and by extension, dreaming more. The National Sleep Association advocates getting regular exercise, even light exercise as opposed to none; limiting heavy meals, alcohol, caffeine in the evening (although alcohol might make one sleepy initially, it disrupts REM sleep later); and powering down blue light electronics to keep circadian rhythms in check. Furthermore, the Mayo Clinic suggests replacing use of electronics with calming bedtime activities such as reading, a warm bath or listening to soothing music. Both the Mayo Clinic and the NSA say to limit daytime naps to no more than 30 minutes in the afternoon; anything longer or closer to bedtime will disrupt sleeping patterns.
Also, make sure your bedroom is conducive to sleep: do you need room darkening shades, is it time for a new mattress with better support, would the quiet hum of a fan help create white noise?
Annmarie Thomas is married and the mother of three boys. Her days are packed with shopping, cooking, cleaning, working on her painting, and blogging. She limits her coffee intake to before noon or else she can't sleep. "I can hardly drink it after lunch," she says. She also finds reading helps settle her thoughts as she lies in bed thinking about the next day's to-do list.
"Some people just get in bed, turn off the light and fall asleep. How do they do that? I read for about a half hour before bed, somewhere around 11:30 p.m. and midnight. Reading in bed is one of my treats in life. I can't go to sleep without it."
Scripture speaks to the restorative nature of sleep in several passages: "God gives rest to his loved ones" (Psalm 127:2). "In peace I will lie down and sleep, for you alone, O Lord, will keep me safe" (Psalm 4:8). "You can go to bed without fear; you will lie down and sleep soundly" (Proverbs 3:24).
Indeed, the spiritual components of sleep and dreaming are often dismissed by modern culture, which may hesitate to acknowledge a world beyond the material sphere. Dreams are often dismissed as having no practical or relevant place in "real" life.
"There is an overlooked spiritual side of dreaming as a way of connecting with a world beyond the physical," Dr. Naiman says, "Dreaming reminds us that there is a lot more going on and it has been called the language of God. Dreaming opens our heart up to a much larger, and much more sacred, experience in life.