This week in the UK it’s Mental Health Awareness Week. Mental health is a broad definition incorporating depression, anxiety, bipolar, eating disorders, schizophrenia and alcohol and drug use disorder. According to the WTO, more than 300 million people are depressed, that’s 4.4% of the global population, and the number is sadly rising. Women suffer more than men, except in the cases of alcohol and drug use disorder. In severe cases, depression can lead to suicide. Close to 800,000 people die due to suicide every year. Suicide is the second leading cause of death in 15-29-year-olds. During depression, it’s common for people to also experience anxiety and disturbed sleep patterns. There are also side effects from taking antidepressants (ADs), and the number of prescriptions is also rising. 

Taking ADs is known to impact dreaming, negatively. In a 2013 report published in Sleep Medicine Reviews, Gotthard Tribl and his research team completed a systematic review, which examined the impact of antidepressants on dream content in both depressed and non-depressed individuals. They found that the class of ADs matters. 

Their research states: “Sleep related symptoms of depression include sleep fragmentation, early morning awakening, decreased rapid eye movement (REM) sleep latency, increased REM density, and more negative dream content. In addition, most tricyclic ADs increase total sleep time and decrease wake time after sleep onset, while many selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) have an opposite effect. However, almost all ADs prolong REM sleep latency and reduce the amount of REM sleep. Case reports and research data indicate a strong effect of ADs on dream recall and dream content. 

“The major finding, both in depressed patients and in healthy volunteers, is a decrease of dream recall frequency (DRF) under ADs. This is a rather consistent effect in tricyclic ADs and phenelzine, less consistently documented also for SSRIs/serotonin norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs). Tricyclic ADs induce more positive dream emotions. Withdrawal from tricyclic ADs and from the monoamine oxidase inhibitors phenelzine and tranylcypromine may cause nightmares. Intake and even more withdrawal of SSRIs/SNRIs seem to intensify dreaming, which may be experienced in different ways; a potential to cause nightmares has to be taken into account. Though there are clear-cut pharmacological effects of ADs on DRF and dream content, publications have been surprisingly scarce during the past 60 years. There is evidence of a gap in neuropsychopharmacological research. AD effects on dreams should be recognized and may be used in treatment.”

Let dreaming be the antidote to depression

Dreaming can help alleviate depression and shed light on the causes, from drug and alcohol abuse, major life changes such as divorce and loss of a loved one, health and body image, parenting, workplace stress and burnout, to ancestral and intergenerational trauma.

Working with dreams promotes emotional, relational, and spiritual rejuvenation. It can be practiced by couples and family members and adapted to group work in a variety of clinical, educational, and occupational settings—any place where people feel safe and free to explore, reveal and discover themselves.

We can dream to address practical dilemmas in love and work but always with an eye to a universal and spiritual dimension of dreaming. Dreams offer us a unique approach to healing. Dreamwork is an essential therapy. Our dreams reveal our central concerns and our most emotionally charged material. These revelations lead directly to increased self-awareness and personal integration. Dreams are an infinite stream of healing water flowing from our inner depths, bringing us what we need to know to heal. 

If you know anyone suffering from depression, suggest they look into working with their dreams. Even if they say they don’t dream or don’t remember their dreams, that can be overcome. All it takes is a little imagination. They can also work to resolve nightmares and turn the negative emotion into one of power and healing.

Dreaming helped me through a bout of depression just last year. I was working very hard, without a social life or any time for me. At one point, I didn’t go outside for 16 days, but I was glued to my computer, working like a machine in the corporate world, and getting good results. And that was the problem. I wasn’t taking any time for me and conscious dreaming. I wasn’t recording my dreams. I’d just get up and head for the computer. My sleep was disturbed. The only dreams I could remember were about work, which was no rest for me. I knew I needed to reconnect properly with my dreams, and the core of who I am. As soon as I did, I began to feel brighter and better each day. The depression became a gift and gave me direct experience of what can happen when we lose touch with who we really are and our dreams, not to mention confirmation of the benefits of sustained and deepened practice.

With depression rates so high, I’m sure we all know someone who’s suffered from depression. Gently stimulating the imagination with guided meditations can take people to a safe, depression-free place for a while, and soon, sustained practice leads to a greater sense of well-being that paves the way for better health and life choices and more advanced dreamwork. 

Dreaming is excellent ‘preventative medicine’. By working with our dreams and sustaining our practice we can ward off illness and even be alerted before illness strikes. Our dreams get to the core of and heal issues, often rapidly. If left unchecked, these issues can lead to physical, mental, emotional and spiritual dis-ease. So let’s dream dis-ease away!