Your Dreams Could Help Alleviate Anxiety — Here's How

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Dreams are mysterious, elusive, and it’s believed we have four to six of them per night.

And from the unpleasant dreams to the not-so-unpleasant, new research says dreaming may actually serve an important function once your alarm clock goes off.

After analyzing the dreams of participants in a new study, researchers found that participants who had more bad dreams were better at controlling fearful emotions.

Your brain on dreams

The research for this study was a collaboration between the University of Geneve (UNIGE), University Hospitals of Geneva, and the University of Wisconsin.

By observing participants’ brain scans while dreaming, then asking them if their dreams were scary, researchers were able to map which parts of the brain reacted to fear while dreaming. And what’s more, those same parts of the brain fire up when we’re awake, too.

"By analyzing the brain activity based on participants' responses, we identified two brain regions implicated in the induction of fear experienced during the dream: the insula and the cingulate cortex,” says Lampros Perogamvros M.D., a researcher in the Sleep and Cognition Laboratory at UNIGE and senior clinical lecturer at HUG's Sleep Laboratory. 

“For the first time," he says, "we've identified the neural correlates of fear when we dream and have observed that similar regions are activated when experiencing fear in both sleep and wakeful states.”

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How dreams help anxiety

The next step for the research was to look at how the brain responded to fear in relation to the subjects' dreams. 

After a week of recording their dreams, participants were shown negative and neutral pictures while inside an MRI machine.

"We found that the longer someone had felt fear in their dreams, the less the insula, cingulate and amygdala were activated when the same person looked at the negative pictures,” says Virginie Sterpenich, a researcher in the Department of Basic Neurosciences at UNIGE. "In addition, the activity in the medial prefrontal cortex, which is known to inhibit the amygdala in the event of fear, increased in proportion to the number of frightening dreams!"

These findings suggest that dreaming actually prepped the subjects for real-life stress, and the worse their dreams, the better their brain handled fear while awake.

"Dreams may be considered,” Perogamvros notes, “as a real training for our future reactions and may potentially prepare us to face real life dangers.”

Now, researcher are looking into the possibility of dream therapy for treating anxiety disorders. While the findings are still fresh, they're promising enough that the team is continuing to study emotions as they relate to dreams, and how sleep and dreaming affects anxiety.

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