Dreams and Depression: How the Depressed Brain Sleeps


In The Twenty-Four Hour Mind, sleep researcher Rosalind D. Cartwright writes about dreams as a means of regulating distressing emotion.

She also shares what research has discovered about rapid eye movement (REM) sleep in people who are depressed.

Cartwright believes that dreams, which occur during REM sleep, come from the interplay of our new experiences and the memories we have stored. Dream images are generated as a pattern recognition between recent emotionally charged events and memories that have a similar emotional flavor.

An emotionally charged experience, by interacting with relevant memories in a dream, diffuses its emotional charge. This process also alters or updates our memory files with new experiential information.

Sleep is a busy time, interweaving streams of thought with emotional values attached, as they fit or challenge the organizational structure that represents our identity. One function of all this action, I believe, is to regulate disturbing emotion in order to keep it from disrupting our sleep and subsequent waking functioning. ~ Rosalind D. Cartwright

Unfortunately, people with depression tend to have abnormal cycles of REM sleep. This gums up our dreams' work of emotional modulation.

Depressed Sleepers

Researchers have discovered several sleep differences between severely depressed individuals and those who are not depressed:

  1. People with severe depression slip into REM sleep sooner than non-depressed sleepers. They may begin dreaming only 45 minutes into their sleep, cutting the normal amount of initial deep, non-dreaming sleep in half. The loss of this deep sleep cannot be fully recovered during the night.
  2. The REM sleep may not only start too early but also last up to twice as long as is considered normal (about 10 minutes is normal).
  3. The eye movements of depressed individuals during REM are often too frequent or not frequent enough.
  4. Our body releases its biggest spurt of human growth hormone (HGH) during the first deep sleep cycle of the night. The HGH release does not occur in depressed sleepers whose deep sleep is disrupted by early REM. HGH allows our physical body to repair itself. A lack of it means our body will be slower to heal or grow.
  5. Depressed individuals awakened during early onset REM are usually unable to recall their dreams.
  6. During REM, depressed dreamers have higher emotional brain center activity than non-depressed dreamers.
  7. During REM, depressed dreamers have high activity in areas of the brain responsible for decision making and rational thought; non-depressed dreamers do not.
  8. Depressed sleepers have too little slow-wave sleep (SWS) which is characteristic of the third and fourth stages of our sleep cycle.

Another interesting fact to come out of brain imaging research is that antidepressants dampen REM sleep. This might be why depressed sleepers have poor dream recall and could be why antidepressants are often effective in relieving depression.

The question remains whether depression is caused by sleep abnormalities or depression triggers sleep abnormalities. Either way, it does not mean “life is but a dream,” though for people with depression it might be said that “a good mood is but a normal dream cycle.”

Photo of electric ladybugs by John Nyboer


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