Have you ever woken up in the morning still feeling sleepy and just wanted to pull the covers up over your head-despite getting plenty of sleep? While you may have thought you felt unmotivated to start the day because you did not get enough dream-filled REM sleep to work out your problems, chances are the opposite is true. Sleep scientists have found that depressed people get as much as three times as much REM sleep as normal people, according to an article on a British-based psychology website devoted to understanding and breaking the negative thinking cycles of depressed people
Deep Sleep Phases vs. REM Sleep
During deep delta wave sleep, brain waves slow down and the body restores itself by repairing cells and strengthening the immune system. In contrast, during REM (or rapid eye movement) sleep, brain waves are more similar to those of a person who is awake. Heart rate and breathing speed up and become more erratic, the eyes move rapidly behind the lids, and adrenaline and other stress hormones are released. Although the brain is excited during REM sleep, the muscles of the body are immobilized–a contrast that has prompted some people to call REM sleep “paradoxical sleep.” Although people may still dream in phases of sleep other than REM sleep, dreams that occur during REM sleep are typically more vivid and intense.
What is the Purpose of Dreaming?
The purpose of dreaming is to act out issues that have been left unresolved during the day, not unlike a child playing “make believe.” People dream in metaphors, so it can sometimes be challenging to interpret what a dream is about. For instance, if a person is worried about losing his job, he may dream that he has lost something else that is precious, such as a wallet, baby or other symbol that represents the prized job. Although people may act out what is bothering them in their dreams, they do not necessarily resolve the issue.
Why Do Depressed People Dream More?
Because negative thinking people tend to believe that worst possible outcomes are most likely to come true, a phenomenon cognitive psychologists call “catastrophizing,” they usually have more unresolved issues when their head hits the pillow. To act out all their unresolved issues from the day, they must spend more time in the REM sleep phase at night. Unfortunately, the extra time spent in REM sleep means less time to become physically and mentally refreshed from more restful deep sleep phases. Especially ironic is that people who are worried spend too much time in REM sleep during the night and use up the mental energy they need to find meaning and motivation during the day. Like a cat chasing its tail, negative feelings experienced during the day lead to more time spent in exhausting REM sleep at night, perpetuating the cycle of depression.
Breaking the Cycle of REM Sleep and Depression
One of the best ways to break the cycle of too much REM sleep is to think more positively. Psychological tools like cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), which replaces all-or-nothing catastrophic thinking with more realistic and hopeful ways of looking at possible outcomes, help reduce or eliminate worried thinking patterns that cause one to spend too much time acting out unresolved issues in REM sleep at night. Instead of choosing the worst possible explanation for something (for instance, if your friend does not return your phone call it does not necessarily mean she does not like you), CBT teaches depressed people to think of more positive alternatives (the friend could be on vacation or too busy to check her voice mail).
Neuro-Linguistic Programming is another tool that can help depressed people reframe negative thoughts into positive thoughts. For instance, instead of worrying about losing his job, a person can focus on the positive opportunities that losing one’s job may present, such as landing a new job that is more challenging or less stressful. The phrase, “When one door closes, another one opens,” is a perfect example of reframing a loss as an opportunity.
Although the link between depression and too much REM sleep is still being studied, many psychologists believe that excess REM sleep can cause or deepen depression. Rather than attach depressed people to EEGs and wake them up during REM sleep, it seems more fruitful for depressed people to learn strategies that will help them worry less and think more positively, reducing their need for too much REM sleep in the first place.