If you've ever been told by someone that the best way to work through a problem is to 'sleep on it', they may have been onto something. Recent studies show that rapid-eye-movement (REM) sleep and dreaming may actually help alleviate stress. Read on to find out why dreaming may be good for you.
What happens during the REM sleep phase?
There are five distinct sleep phases which the brain and body cycle through during the night. The first four phases involve a transition from shallow to deep sleep, while the fifth phase, rapid-eye-movement (REM) sleep, involves heightened brain activity and vivid dreams.
According to Mathew Walker, professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkley, during REM sleep your brain becomes highly active. There is more activity in the visual, motor, emotional and autobiographical memory regions of the brain, but decreased activity in other regions that control rational thought—hence why your dreams are nonsensical.
What happens when you dream?
Psychologist, Rubin Naiman, a sleep and dream specialist at the University of Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine describes the brain during REM sleep as a sort of "second gut" that digests all of the information gathered that day; dreams act as an active filter for our daily experiences. Some scientists theorise that dreams help the brain separate important memories from non-important ones, and help you prepare yourself mentally for challenges by playing out various scenarios in your head.
What are the health benefits of REM sleep and dreaming?
Numerous recent studies suggest that REM and dreaming can affect how accurately you read facial expressions and process your environment. Research, conducted by Walker, found that people who achieved REM sleep during a nap judged facial expressions and emotions more accurately than those who'd napped without reaching REM sleep. The same research found that dreams help you build resilience against stressful situations. Walker thinks of dreaming as a form of 'overnight therapy' and says that dreaming "Provides a nocturnal soothing balm that takes the short edges off our emotional experiences so we feel better the next day."
Another study—from researchers at Rutgers University—echoes similar findings and suggests that the quality of a person's sleep before a traumatic event can have a significant impact on how the brain reacts to a scary situation. The more time people spent in REM sleep phase, the weaker their fear-related response.
Scientists aren't sure why this happens. But one theory by postdoctoral sleep researcher, Itamar Lerner suggests that the part of the brain that secretes norepinephrine during wakefulness and non-REM sleep takes a break during REM sleep. Norepinephrine is the chemical associated with stress and the amygdala—the fear center of the brain.
Craving a better night's sleep with sweeter dreams? Read more about how you can start sleeping clean here.