Lots of research and theories exist on dreaming and why we do it. They are all theories at this point, as brain research is still in its infancy. Heck, we don’t even understand the purpose of sleep! Recently, however, I’ve been studying one school of thought in particular. It intrigues me because it just makes sense. First, a little story.


My sweet and usually calm husband tends to get a little anxious before a business trip. He must frequently fly back and forth across the country. He tells me:

“Often the few days before I leave, I’ll have dreams where I’m struggling to reach an important meeting. The dreams are about stupid stuff. It might be that I’m at the airport, and I won’t know how to open a door, or I that can’t get a taxi. It feels, in the dream, like I just can’t get myself out the door.”

I witness all of the arrangements he must make for each trip. He  has to cover his lectures and labs, make sure current grant funding is in place, submit spending requests, arrange many meetings in LA with busy colleagues and so forth. It’s no wonder he is a bit stressed prior to leaving.

Which is what leads me to this theory.

According to Joe Griffin, Ivan Tyrrell and Denise Winn in How to Lift Depression Fast (2009, HG Publishing United Kingdom),

“We dream at night to deactivate the emotional stuff we get worked up about during the day that is still taking up space in our brains when we go to sleep. We dream about emotionally arousing expectations our brain is still anticipating.”

Why Do Our Emotions Exist?

Our emotions exist for one reason: to get us to take action. Fight or flight. Rest and digest. When an emotion arouses us, we have the urge to do something. Consider the desire for something sweet. You might see a commercial or a post on social media for something you love. Now you have a craving, but you are trying to eat a bit more healthily. So it’s near lunch and you skip the sweet treat and choose well for your goals. But the craving remains, unsatisfied.

This happened to me recently when a friend posted a delicious looking picture of a chocolate cake she had just finished making. Thank goodness I got invited over to help her eat it!

Once a primal urge is triggered, whether it is for pleasure, defense, or escape from danger (or just as importantly—perceived danger—our brains do not know the difference) it needs to be discharged.

We need these action urges to keep us alive, safe and sated, but in the 24/7 rush-rush, pressure cooker world we exist in today, you just can’t get it all done before bedtime!

Dreams: A Clean Up Job

So we dream. Much of the time our dreams are not about exactly what went on unmet during the day. Our complex brains are able to weave a different story of disconnected parts into a narrative that allows us to ‘clean up’ the day’s events and stressors. That way, you can go do it all again tomorrow with some available band width up there!

People who are depressed and/or anxious (they are often intertwined), have more thoughts that keep them aroused emotionally, and typically in a negative manner. When these thoughts do not get discharged during the day, often their REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep pattern is longer, starts earlier, and is more intense. We all alternate between REM and slow wave, more restful sleep patterns each night. This has been demonstrated frequently through fMRI’s, a way to see inside the brain. When these patterns are disrupted, that is why people who are depressed feel tired all of the time.

Other evidence indicates that dreams are more frequent and more intense after trauma.This lends more credence to this theory of why we dream in my opinion. People will dream and recall the intensity or the emotions they felt more than the content of the dream, such as terror or feeling overwhelmed.

Coping Skills

One coping skill I always teach my anxious clients is to ask this question when they find themselves ruminating:

If I were feeling [insert your emotion here], what might I be feeling [insert your emotion here] about?

Then I ask them to do a little brain dump by listing their answers on paper. Externalizing these swirling, churning thoughts is an excellent way to start objectively examining what your dreams may be trying to tell you tonight.

If you need help untangling these thoughts, or learning additional coping skills, I am in your neighborhood and ready to help. Call or shoot me an email.  It can be overwhelming, this business of figuring out our emotions!

P.S. Studies show that we forget about half of our dreams within 5 minutes of waking. In another 10, the whole dream is gone, but researchers have no idea why this occurs with such frequency. So if you really wanted to think about  the content, you would need to write it down in as much detail as you could immediately upon waking.

Page Rutledge, LCSW, MSW, MPH, CHt is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker practicing in Wilmington, NC. She specializes in anxiety management and couples communication. Visit her website and blog at www.pagerutledge.com