by Meg Stein

butterflies flying near ground with mushrooms night

The late comedian Mitch Hedberg has a joke about dreams: “I hate dreaming. Because when you sleep, you wanna sleep. Dreaming is work, you know – there I am in a comfortable bed, the next thing you know I have to build a go-kart with my ex-landlord. I want a dream of me watching myself sleep.”

He raises a good point. Dreams often seem random, and usually involve us engaging in a lot of activity. People often dismiss their dreams as nonsense, but in fact we undergo the same biophysical processes when we’re asleep as when we’re awake. In other words, dreams affect our physical and mental health the same as waking experience does. And, likewise, dreams can reveal truths about both your mental health and your physical health. Nightmares may indicate that you’re sick, for example. Vivid dreaming may point to sleep deprivation, low blood sugar, or pregnancy.

woman in bed

Dr. Michelle Carr writes in Psychology Today that:

In the more benign case, the frequency and intensity of disturbing dreams may show a progression and resolution over time, whereas chronic nightmares are repetitive, persistent, and associated with lower psychological well-being, as well as histories of trauma or abuse. In fact, frequent and distressing nightmares, along with several other qualities of disturbed dreaming, such as changes in emotional intensity, increased bizarreness, or unusual character interactions, have been associated with specific psychological disorders, including depression, schizophrenia, and personality disorder.

Dreams can indicate a physical or mental state that you may not have been aware of beforehand. For example, many depressed patients are often relatively passive in their dreams, which are frequently less bizarre than normal; and, when waking, depressed patients report lower dream recall frequency, and less detailed dream reports. The U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs reports that 52 percent of combat vets with PTSD have nightmares frequently, compared with only 3 percent of civilians. Dreams can also provide information about times when you’re feeling stressed or anxious. By paying attention to the feeling that you had in the dream, rather than the precise details of what happened in the dream, you can often gain clarity about the stressors in your life.


The Live, Love, Laugh Foundation reports that, “If you have vividly detailed and long dreams, you could be suffering from anxiety. Anxious people have higher brain activity during the day and also tend to absorb more information providing more fodder for their dreams. If left unchecked, this can be a recurring theme and lead to changing sleep patterns.

If you already know that you have a particular condition or diagnosis, then dreams can likewise give you accurate information about it. For example, studies have shown that bipolar patients’ dreams can indicate an oncoming alteration between depressive and manic states. This happens when bipolar patients reported a shift from experiencing neutral or negative dream content towards more bizarre and unrealistic dreams.

Laura in Bustle magazine reminds us that, “It’s important to note that having vivid dreams or scary dreams is not in itself an indicator that anything is wrong with your mental health.” However, it’s still a good idea to pay attention to your dreams. Tracking your dreams over time can help you discover larger changes, shifts or resolutions in your life. And stay alert if you find yourself experiencing nightmares or very vivid dreams frequently. If this happens, you may want to discuss your sleep with your doctor and your mental healthcare provider. While your dreams may or may not point to underlying physical or mental health problems, the fact remains that if your dreams are interrupting your sleep, then it’s a good idea to seek help. Antonio Zadra, a dream researcher and clinical psychologist, wrote, “In some cases, nightmares represent a primary sleep disorder rather than a symptom of an underlying psychological conflict.”


Your dreams may or may not be signs of a bigger problem, but you should seek help regardless, as frequently disrupted sleep can negatively impact your health. Dream researcher and clinical psychologist Antonio Zadra pointed out in The New York Times that recurrent nightmares need to be addressed simply for their own sake, even if they’re not signs of other issues.

As Hedberg’s joke suggests, dreams can be tiring and can interrupt your sleep. If that’s the case, it’s a good idea to get some help so you can sleep more peacefully.




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