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Sleep cycles, depression, and anxiety: Is too much dreaming a problem?

Updated: May 10


There have been times in my life when I have been consumed with worry. A champion worrier if you will. When I wasn’t worried about one thing or another, I would have been worried about being worried. I am sure some of you reading this will relate. While I knew at the time that excessive worrying may cause insomnia, I was not aware that if you spend the vast majority of your waking hours worrying, it also has the potential to affect your sleep cycles, which in turn can further increase your potential to worry.


Before discussing how this occurs, we should have a look briefly at the four sleep stages. The first three stages are awake, light, and deep sleep, which are classified as Non-Rapid Eye Movement (NREM) sleep, and a further stage, Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep (Oura, 2020). Awake in this context refers to the time immediately before and after falling asleep when we are still in bed, in addition to any short-lived awakened times during sleep. Light sleep is characterised by the stage that helps to guide your body into deeper states of sleep, while Deeper sleep is the stage that is greatly restorative to your body.


During light sleep, respiration and temperature decrease, and it is a stage from which it is easy to be woken from. During deep sleep, individuals experience a drop in blood pressure and heart rate. Deep sleep is a time for cellular repair, blood flow to muscles, and the reorganisation of brain connections (Oura, 2020).


REM sleep is when vivid dreaming occurs and memories are consolidated. Dreaming may occur due to an attempt of the brain to complete unfinished business from the day (Jones, 2018). For example, if you experienced an unresolved argument during the day, your brain effectively finishes the argument through metaphor in a dream (Jones, 2018). Therefore, while you may not dream about the argument per se, you could perhaps dream about a bubble bursting, which may indicate that you are seeing the relationship in a different light or that you are trying to eliminate a bad relationship.


While individuals differ in the length of sleep phases they experience, studies have shown that people with depression and anxiety may spend longer periods in the REM stage of sleep (Jones, 2018). As this is the dreaming phase, this may sound quite nice, however, longer periods spent in this phase limits the amount of time spent in the deep restorative sleep phase, a stage which makes people feel well-rested (Jones, 2018). This may result in an individual feeling exhausted, despite sleeping a regular amount of time.


Another reason that an extended REM stage may lead to exhaustion the next day is that this stage is almost as active as being awake (Jones, 2018). An example of this is if you have a nightmare and wake up – you may be sweating profusely and have a racing heart rate.


Overall, increased REM sleep stages have implications for depression and anxiety. For depression, it can result in the “Cycle of Depression”, where an individual has a depressive style of thinking, which results in excessive worry. This in turn may generate over-dreaming, with decreased deep restorative sleep (Jones, 2018). Subsequently, the person wakes feeling exhausted and is much more likely to engage in a depressive style of thinking, which continues the cycle.


Anxiety and anxious thought may result in a similar cycle with extended REM sleep stages. Again, this appears to be in direct contrast to what the brain actually needs: Deep sleep. Researchers have found that deep sleep restores the brain’s prefrontal mechanisms, which acts to regulate emotions, therefore lowering emotional and physiological reactivity, and preventing anxiety escalation (Science Daily, 2019).


So what can we do to help us move towards a more balanced pattern of sleep?


1. Have “worry time” with a difference


Many therapists advocate setting aside time to worry into waking hours and only doing it at a prescribed “worry time” and writing down troubles into a diary. While this is a good idea as it acts to park the worry for the day, taking one further step makes a lot of sense – looking for solutions to the problems. You may be a champion worrier like I was, but to move forward, you need to have the next part. Dedicating half an hour each day to worries, while also creatively thinking about some solutions to your problems, is a wise investment of time to actively reduce worries in the future.


2. Park it


If you can’t find a solution to the problem, park it for the time being. Writing down any problems is a time-proven method, however, there are now also many apps that can be used to store your problems until you come up with a solution, giving your mind a rest from constantly having to worry.


3. Prioritise Exercise


By making some form of exercise a priority in your life, you can expect to experience increased clarity of thought and increased energy. Both of these factors can increase levels of motivation, leading to more proactive solution-focused thinking, rather than worry (Centre for Clinical Interventions, n.d).


4. Create a list of go-to activities which bring you joy


Having a list of enjoyable activities that you can pursue can take the edge of worry and keep you active. A few ideas include going on a day trip, going to see a funny movie, going to the beach, having a barbeque, playing with your pet, going hiking, playing a sport, doing creative pursuits such as painting or ceramics, and playing uplifting music (Centre for Clinical Interventions, n.d.).


5. Seek professional support to unravel unhelpful thinking styles


If unhelpful thinking styles are keeping you locked in a pattern of worry, it may be time to seek some assistance. Often we can overlook unhelpful patterns of thinking because they have become the norm for us, and it can take the help of professional support to point out these patterns, and help us evaluate if there is evidence to support the validity of these thoughts.


Hypnotherapy is one of the oldest types of therapy available, while Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) is one of the newest. New Leaf Hypnotherapy & Counselling offers both of these therapies, which when combined, act to work efficiently and effectively at untangling unhelpful thinking patterns.


As a final note, it took several years and hard work on my behalf to tackle unhelpful thinking patterns which were causing excessive worry. And while I still experience some worry, it is never to the extent that it previously was, as I am now able to objectively look at the worries, and formulate creative solutions, which in turn has greatly improved my sleep patterns.


It appears that Shakespeare had it right when he referred to sleep as the “balm of hurt minds” in the context of deep, restorative sleep and there are many factors that we do have within our control in order to revert to a more balanced sleep pattern if over-dreaming is an issue (Science Daily, 2019).


References


Centre for Clinical Interventions (n.d.). The vicious cycle of depression. www.cci.health.wa.gov.au


Jones, D. (2018). Understanding and Treating Depression: How to lift depression fast and create lasting change. Udemy. https://www.udemy.com/course/understanding-and-treating-depression/


Oura. (2020). What are the stages of sleep?. https://ouraring.com/blog/sleep-stages/#:~:text=Sleep%20has%20been%20traditionally%20divided,for%20the%20phases%20of%20sleep.


Science Daily. (2019). Stressed to the max? Deep sleep can rewire the anxious brain. https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2019/11/191104124140.htm

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