What Are Your Dreams Telling You About Your Mental Health?

Published On 1 Mar 2020
Written by
Team Setu
Written by
Team Setu

Dreams have long been a subject of interest to humanity, but real scientific insights have eluded us for much of our brief history. Interpretations by charlatans and even greats like Sigmund Freud have often been as bizarre as the very dreams that we seek to understand. Fortunately, researchers have made some progress in recent years. Although no specific dream can be ascribed with definite meaning, we know that certain types of dreams can tell us a lot about the state of our mental health. Here’s everything you need to know about the role of dreams in mental health.

Dreaming Insights: What Your Dreams Say About Your Mental Health

Most of us have little to no recollection of our dreams when we wake up, but when we do remember our dreams, they frequently reflect our mental state or can be indicative of underlying mental illnesses. What do our dreams reveal about mental health? Research that appeared in the journal Scientific Reports [1], possibly has the greatest relevance to most of us as it looked specifically at dreams in the context of levels of anxiety and peace of mind. As you may have suspected, dreams tend to be more disturbing and stressful when you have higher levels of anxiety, while happy dreams are associated with low levels of anxiety and stress. 

Emotionally charged dreams of a negative nature and frequent nightmares tend to be more common when you suffer from depression. In cases of severe depression that involves suicidal ideation, death also tends to be a recurrent subject of their dreams. What your dreams could indicate about your mental health? Studies [2] show that not only are bad dreams more common in patients suffering from depression, but they can also increase the risk of suicidal behavior. Of course, this isn’t always the case, as some people with depression experience vivid dreams that are more neutral because of what researchers describe as “affective flattening” – this is a state in which one experiences a reduced range of emotional expression.

Nightmares are obviously not exclusive to those of us who suffer from depression, but they occur with greater frequency among groups who suffer from mental health disorders. The types of nightmares that you experience can give us clues to the mental illness that may be fueling them. What can dreams tell us about our mental health? The types of dreaming in which you are surrounded by strangers, rather than people familiar to you, and are usually the victim of hostility, rather than a spectator, may be linked to schizophrenia. This link was highlighted in findings published in the journal Schizophrenia Research [3], which suggests that these dreams are influenced by neurocognitive processes observed in schizophrenia.

Rapid eye movements are indicative of dreams that can be taken as predictors of oncoming mood changes, as demonstrated in a study [4] of patients suffering from bipolar disorder. Generally, individuals suffering from mental health conditions such as bipolar disorder are likely to experience increasingly disturbing dreams about bodily injury and death before they enter a manic state. Researchers also observed that while these themes are common, the overall occurrence of dreams seems to decrease before a depressive episode. By tracking your dreams and moods in a journal, you can identify such connections and also take steps to better manage an oncoming depressive episode. 

The role of dreams in mental health is very significant; Perhaps unsurprisingly, recurrent nightmares and disturbing dreams are very commonly indicative of past traumatic experiences, some that may even be suppressed by your subconscious. Data from the US Department of Veterans Affairs [5] suggests that people with PTSD can have such nightmares several times a week. Once again, the nature of the nightmares is telling, as PTSD nightmares resemble flashbacks, in which you relive parts of or even the entire traumatic event.

Getting Past Disturbing Dreams

The ability to program your subconscious to control your dreams may seem like the stuff of the science fiction realm, it isn’t as far-fetched as you might think. While recurring dreams that disturb sleep or affect your mood should be investigated so that any underlying illness can be treated, you can also use dream-control strategies like image-rehearsal therapy and subconscious programming. These techniques can help to change or control the course of dreams, help you with problems of sleep deprivation so that you have happier dreams, positive dream outcomes, and get better quality sleep.

Almost all of dream control techniques follow similar approaches and have been found to improve sleep quality and reduce nightmares [6] even in PTSD patients. To program your subconscious, you need to plan out and rehearse an alternate scenario that you’d like your dream to take, going over it repeatedly at bedtime. You can also listen to audio recordings in which you narrate the desired storyline to yourself. Just keep in mind that it can take time for such methods to yield results and they are obviously more effective when you try them out with the help of a therapist.

In the words of the renowned sleep researcher William Dement, “Dreaming permits each and every one of us to be quietly and safely insane every night of our lives.” So, if you’re otherwise healthy and happy and simply suffer from the occasional nightmare or weird dream, stop trying to psychoanalyze yourself or find meaning in your dreams, no matter how bizarre they might be.


    1. https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-018-30721-1
    2. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/24909253-nightmares-and-suicide-predicting-risk-in-depression/
    3. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/24396574_Dream_content_in_chronically-treated_persons_with_schizophrenia
    4. http://www.jad-journal.com/article/0165-0327(95)00036-M/pdf?cc=y=
    5. https://www.ptsd.va.gov/understand/related/nightmares.asp
    6. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/11476655-imagery-rehearsal-therapy-for-chronic-nightmares-in-sexual-assault-survivors-with-posttraumatic-stress-disorder-a-randomized-controlled-trial/
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