Vijai P. Sharma, Ph.D
"I don't know what was wrong with me the other day. I woke up in a foul mood. All day I kept going off at everybody." Has this happened to you too when you felt "you got out of the wrong side of the bed?" Being a psychologist, I hear this a lot from people.
Sometimes, it's difficult to put our finger on exact reason that might have made us grouchy that day. We scan the events of the previous night and of that morning and we can't come up with anything that bad that could account for our mood. A friend of mine once asked me, "I didn't fight with my spouse, my boss didn't rake me on the coals, and I didn't spend the whole night worrying about anything. So tell me doc why do I feel like this on some days?" I smiled trying to avoid psychologizing a light conversation and used a Shakespearean instead, "There is a method in his madness. Even when he says there is no reason, there is a reason."
Sleep normally has a restorative function. It repairs the body and the mind. Normally, one should wake up in the morning with a cheerful outlook for the day, relieved of the previous evening's worries and self-doubting. In fact, studies show that a good night's sleep improves mood in healthy individuals.
I believe that the restorative function of sleep is disturbed by negative and toxic thoughts of the wakeful state and by sad or anxious dreams during sleep. The degree to which the thinking and dreaming patterns would interfere with the restorative function of sleep depends on the total emotional health of an individual at a particular time. The effects of sleep on emotionally healthy and overstressed people are different. Take for example our dreams. Dreams have a job to do while we sleep. Dreams should repair our mood and aid our thinking about things we think about during the day. Dreams, sometimes, do problem solving through a different kind of thinking, using pictures and symbols.
The reparative and restorative mechanism of sleeping and dreaming stops working when we are emotionally overloaded. In one study, psychologist Rosalind Cartwright, a sleep researcher, invited mentally healthy participants to her sleep lab and gave them a mood test to determine how they were feeling that evening, "feeling neutral" or "feeling low." In the night, all participants were monitored for their sleep and awakened periodically to describe the content of their dreams. The mood test was administered again when they woke up in the morning. Remember these were all normal healthy individuals.
Cartwright found that participants who were in a neutral mood before going to bed, felt about the same when they woke up in the morning. However, those who went to bed in a bad mood reported feeling much better after a good night's sleep. Their dreams also told an interesting story. The participants whose mood was improved in the morning actually started off their night with more negative dreams. However, as the night progressed, they reported fewer and fewer negative dreams. But, the participants who went to bed in a neutral mood didn't show any change in the content of their dreams.
Perhaps, people who are emotionally healthy and stable can work off their negative moods while sleeping and dreaming during the night, but what about the people who are going through a particularly rough time? Cartwright repeated the experiment this time with people who became depressed after a recent marital separation. She discovered there were two sets of people: one, who dreamed fewer negative dreams as the morning approached and second, who had more and more disturbing dreams just before they rose in the morning.
It seems that if we do not have too much emotional overload, our mood gets regulated overnight and our dreams work as aids to improving our disposition in the morning. However, if there is excessive emotional overloading and our coping resources are overworked, this restorative mechanism may not work adequately.
We can take our cues from our dreams to determine if we are emotionally overloaded and our coping resources are overburdened. With the exception of nightmares, most of the dreams we can remember are the morning dreams. So, how are your morning dreams? In order to feel good in the morning, morning dreams should have a positive, or, at least, neutral ending. If you see disturbing dreams or wake up with a bad mood or headache, more than just once in a while, your personal resources are being overburdened. Do something about it.
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Copyright 1996, Mind Publications