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Is There A Link Between Dreaming And Depression?

Elvis Elvis

If dreaming is caused by the levels of chemicals in our brains, is there a link between depression and dreams?

As I’ve been a life long vivid dreamer, and also had long struggles with severe moods of despair and hopelessness, I was fascinated to discover that the answer is a loud yes.

People who suffer from clinical depression start dreaming more quickly than those who don’t, and stay in the dream state for longer.

Why, I wondered, might this be?

The biochemical theory of the illness is that sufferers don’t produce enough serotonin in their brains. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter, a chemical that transmits signals between nerve cells. Anti-depressant medications work by increasing the levels of serotonin in the brain.

During REM sleep, the production of serotonin, as well as noradrenalin, is shut down, and acetylcholine floods through the brain’s pathways. Scientists believe that this may be to give us the chance to rest and regenerate more serotonin. If our levels of serotonin are frequently low, perhaps we need to stay in REM sleep for longer so they have more time to rise. This would also mean we take longer to produce enough serotonin to stop the production of acetylcholine, thus giving us longer, more vivid dreams.

Is There A Link Between Dreaming And Depression?

Anti-depressant medications, such as SSRIs, have been found to reduce REM sleep.

SSRIs (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors) can also lead to very bizarre and intense dreaming when you come off them.

I also experienced extreme hypnagogic hallucinations when I first started taking Effexor.

One of the mysteries of these medications is that they affect the brain chemistry immediately, even though it takes some weeks to feel an improvement in mood. I’ve found that missing a single night time dose of Effexor gives me a night of extremely wild, strange, and sometimes nightmarish dreams, as well as causing strong “brain fog” the next day. Many other users of SSRIs have reported similar side effects.

This is probably because the sudden drop of serotonin in my brain allows the acetylcholine to run rampant, sending the emotional and visual centres into action for stronger and longer periods.

This increased dream sleep has another effect that can produce one of the major symptoms of a depressive mood disorder – lethargy and exhaustion. Because we spend so much more time dreaming, we miss out on slow wave sleep, which is when our body rejuvenates. We may stay asleep for longer than other people think we need, attempting to catch up on the restful cycles of sleep, but then suffer from insomnia when we go to bed, or have difficulty waking at a “normal” time.

Some people might conclude that all this means it would be good for people with mental health problems to dream less.

Here I’m going to inject a personal note: I find my dreaming immensely theraputic. I also really, really enjoy and love my dreams.

It’s hard to find anything you really love and enjoy when you’re suffering from clinical depression. That’s one of its main symptoms. When everything is grey and dull, or agonizingly black, I find the world of my dreams to be a beautiful refuge. They also help me deal with and process emotions, particularly the ones locked deep in my subconscious.

I would rather dream more, and sleep more in order to get my restful slow wave sleep. I’ve always been a night owl, so I don’t really mind not fitting in with the normal sleep patterns of society. Unfortunately this does sometimes make it harder to get my daily tasks done, or get up at 8 am for a doctor’s appointment!

Still, I’ve learned that one of the keys to living with a depression is to figure out how to work with yourself rather than against yourself.