Dream (REM) sleep is a wonderful mechanism. But, just as two aspirins can be helpful in curing a headache but taking the whole bottle would be harmful, so the right amount of REM sleep accomplishes the emotional repairs required but too much is counter productive. In addition, if you give the dreaming brain too much work to do, it is forced to up the amount of REM sleep you have each night, which isn't healthy.
The normal sleep pattern is to start the night with slow-wave body-repair sleep, followed about 90 minutes later by our first period of REM sleep, which lasts about 10 minutes. As the night goes on, we gradually have less slow-wave sleep and more REM sleep, culminating in about half an hour of REM sleep just before we wake up in the morning (which is why we sometimes remember the last dream we have had). As a rule though, we usually forget our dreams, because they represent expectations that didn't get completed in real life, and we don't want them stored in memory as if they had been.
However, research has shown that depressed people who worry a lot have their first REM sleep just 20 minutes (or at most 50) into the night, and it can last for almost an hour. They then continue to have more and longer periods of REM sleep (and more intense dreams) until the brain can take no more and they wake in the early hours, even more exhausted than when they went to sleep. Then, once again, they start worrying all over again.
We have an electrical signalling system in our brains - sometimes called the orientation or 'fight or flight' response - that alerts us to sudden changes in our environment. This same signal is also set off at the start of and during dreaming, alerting us to the fact that there are undischarged emotional arousals which need de-arousing through dream content. Unsurprisingly, this signal goes off at an amazing rate in people who worry continually. Each time we respond to this signal, however, it draws on our motivational energy of which we only have a certain amount. And, as excessive REM sleep pretty well uses this up, it is no surprise then that incessant worriers all too often wake up in the morning feeling not just exhausted but depressed and lacking the motivation to get them going.
Quite naturally, this provides something new to worry about. "Why do I feel like this? I went to bed early, and I know I had quite a bit of sleep. Why don't I feel refreshed? Why is it such a huge effort to just get out of bed and go and put the kettle on? Perhaps there's something seriously physically wrong with me?"
If this is you....
Well yes, something is physically wrong - at the moment. Your sleep pattern is out of balance, leaving you short on slow-wave body-repair sleep while your dreaming brain is in overdrive, running itself ragged trying to discharge all the arousal caused by your worrying. No wonder you don't feel good. And the longer it goes on, the greater the wear and tear on your body, as it is also under siege from all those perpetually circulating stress hormones.
Quite a dramatic scenario isn't it? And it stems entirely from all that fretting, worrying and dread. And although your energy stores gradually fill up somewhat during the day, they quickly become depleted again when the next bout of emotional arousals comes up for discharge in dream form that night. For dreaming doesn't solve problems. It isn't intended to. It merely completes our unresolved emotional expectations so that we can start the day with a fresh 'slate' in terms of emotional arousal. By starting the worry cycle all over again, we undo all that work.
But this needn't be a permanent state of affairs. Indeed, we have found that simply knowing all this is often the spur that people need to enable them to successfully take the steps needed to stop worrying...
This blog post was taken from the book How to Master Anxiety: all you need to know to overcome stress, panic attacks, phobias, trauma, obsessions and more.
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Why do we dream? - A website dedicated to the expectation fulfilment theory of dreaming.
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