Research on Dreaming Informs the Discussion of Cultivating Emotional Balance

By Grant Hilary Brenner, M.D

What happens when we put something out of our minds? What happens when we shut down that “negative” emotional state and get on with the day without giving it another thought? There is a tension between models of personal change that emphasize focusing on positive, constructive thoughts and moving away from negative thoughts, and those which counsel that engaging with ostensibly negative and unpleasant thoughts is necessary for personal development.

Can we “get rid” of thoughts? What happens when we believe we are throwing away mental garbage? It’s one thing to stop ourselves from engaging in futile masochism or interrupt obsessive thoughts. It’s another thing entirely to try to ignore important parts of oneself, joyful or melancholy. Like the global ecosystem, the ecology of the psyche dictates that we can’t quite get rid of things. We push feelings into unconsciousness, but they remain implicit, having impact on our unconscious waking process and emerging in the evening. We can suppress, medicate and ignore our dreams, but when we do so we may be risking missing out on ultimately necessary and catalytic experiences required at times for personal development.

You can run, but you can’t hide

Prior research (Malinowski 2015) has confirmed the relevance of “dream rebound”. When we suppress waking thoughts, they show up in our dreams. A recent study builds on that prior work to look at whether there is a difference in dream rebound for suppressors of positive versus negative emotions, whether this affects sleep quality, and relates to experiencing depressionanxiety or stress.

Study design

Sixty-two participants participated in the study, 70 percent women, averaging 27 years old, about half university students from the UK and half recruited from social media platforms. With the stipulation that they had dreamed recently and were discussing their most recent dream (MRD), they completed a battery of questionnaires.

Questions about the MRD:

  1. “Thinking about this dream, how much of it do you see as being related to emotions you have experienced in waking life?”
  2. “Which of the following emotions did your dream contain? Tick all that apply” (tick boxes for happiness, sadness, angerfearlove, anxiety, guilt, awe, and lust)
  3. “To what extent does your dream relate to waking-life (happiness/sadness/anger/fear/love/anxiety/guilt/awe/lust) that you have  experienced?”
  4. “How often do you experience a recurrent dream? A recurrent dream is a dream that repeats the same content over and over again.”
  5. “How often do you experience a lucid dream? A lucid dream is a dream in which you are aware you are dreaming, and may have some control over what happens in the dream.”
  6. “How often do you experience a nightmare? A nightmare is a very unpleasant, often scary, dream, in which the emotion is so strong that it wakes you up.”