A new interpretation of dreams: Our in-dream behaviours highlight our unconscious anxieties

Image credit: Gavin Clark via Flickr

A dream:

You’re in a room with a man who is extremely dirty. He tells you that he is sad, and he would like you to accompany him to bed because of this. In the room is a double bed, but not a normal double bed. The bed is a health and safety hazard. It is a dangerous contraption with springs shooting out of it and may jolt severely at any time, causing anyone on it to fly into the air and be injured.

What would you do?

Dreams are known for their bizarreness. Freud’s (1915) method of understanding the meaning behind dreams focused on interpreting the strange things that happen to us and appear within our dreams. He suggested that kings and queens were most likely parents, animals were children or siblings, water was related to birth, death was  represented by a journey and so on…

In a recently published paper comparing dreaming to mind-wandering, presented at this year’s Annual International Dream Conference, a new argument was made that, while what happens to us in our dreams is certainly bizarre, the response to the situations we find ourselves in is as bizarre, if not more so. By examining the behaviours we take in our dreams, unconscious patterns of anxious behaviour and thought which plague us while awake are able to be diagnosed.

So, what would you do? Would you get into an explosive bed with a very dirty person because they were sad? Most likely not. But that is not the decision the dreamer in question found themselves taking within that dream. Though the request disgusted them, they felt obliged to do so. Fulfilling such an unpleasant demand is no doubt a scary thing to do, however, for many sufferers of anxiety saying no to others and risking upsetting them is an even more terrifying prospect. This fear of saying no was the unconscious anxiety highlighted in this dream.

”By examining the behaviours we take in our dreams, unconscious patterns of anxious behaviour and thought which plague us while awake are able to be diagnosed.”

Neurologically, dreaming has a well-established relationship to the mental activity of mind-wandering. Mind-wandering includes day dreaming, thinking of the past, the future and, most significantly, worrying (clinically known as rumination or obsessive thought). Mind-wandering occurs when a network of different brain areas, known as the Default Mode Network, activates simultaneously. While we are awake, the areas responsible for emotions and executive (considered) thoughts are both part of the process. The emotional areas generate the situations we imagine, and our executive functions enable us to plan around them.

When we worry, we imagine situations which demand avoidant behaviour. For example, let’s say you are scared of roller coasters but have been persuaded by your friends to join the queue for one. As you look up at the loop-the-loop, the emotional regions of the Default Mode Network push terrible future situations into your thoughts – you see yourself falling out, you imagine the roller coaster getting stuck upside down. These situations pile pressure on our already scared minds to take avoidant behaviour. Though, upon reflection, the situations are ridiculous, exaggerated and highly improbable, in the throes of the moment they seem like real, and very bad, futures. If it were the case that you were going to be stuck upside down for hours, it would make sense not to get on the roller coaster. This is the function of worry – to generate avoidant action. The thoughts will go away if you leave the queue.

However, you know your friends will think you’re a loser if you tell them you’re scared, so now the executive areas of the Default Mode Network come into play. They help you plan a route out that works – the candy floss you just ate disagreed with you, so, unfortunately, you’re going to have to sit this one out. During anxious mind-wandering such as this, the mind is biologically stressed; the Default Mode Network is joined by a highly active amygdala (a region in the brain responsible for preparing the mind and body for situations containing a threat) and swamped with the ‘fight or flight’ neurotransmitter norepinephrine.

”Mind-wandering occurs when a network of different brain areas, known as the Default Mode Network, activates simultaneously.”

The new theory of dream interpretation suggests dreams are the inverse of anxious mind-wandering; instead of our minds being filled with situations which urge us to take avoidant behaviours, dreams present situations which demand that we confront our anxieties. Just like anxious mind-wandering, the situations presented in dreams are exaggerated – for example, it is difficult to design a request more deserving of a ‘no’ than someone very dirty asking you to lie with them in a dangerous bed.

The neurology falls neatly in line with this view of dreaming as reverse worry. In an exact reversal of the neurology of rumination, the brain is distinctly relaxed during dreaming: the amygdala is inactive and norepinephrine levels are 85 per cent below our base waking levels. A stressed brain imagines situations which demand avoidance; a relaxed brain imagines situations which call for confrontation.

However, the behaviours we take in our dreams are overtly avoidant (for example, not saying no to the dirty person in the dream above). The sharp contrast between the un-avoidant behaviour the in-dream situation calls for, and the avoidant behaviour taken in the dream highlights the anxiety. Again, the neurology is supportive: during non-lucid dreaming, only the emotional areas of the default mode network are active, with the areas responsible for executive functions entirely dormant. This means that we are unable to use calculated thought to conceal our anxieties, making it easier for any interpreter of the dream to spot our anxious traits.

Modern psychology is very good at dealing with anxieties when they are diagnosed. To rid the mind of a fear we need to expose ourselves to it and force ourselves not to take the avoidant behaviour we normally do. The mechanism of change is based on memory activation and reconsolidation: during the exposure the fear memory is activated, and our survival, while taking unavoidable behaviour, reconsolidates the memory with less anxiety attached. Just like learning to enjoy jumping off a diving board as a child, if you go through the activation-reconsolidation process enough the fear associated with the triggering experience evaporates.

I have used this method of dream interpretation followed by exposure successfully in both in my own therapy and in my therapeutic work with others. My experience has indicated that the anxieties diagnosed from dreams differ from those classically diagnosed by modern therapies, such as cognitive behavioural therapy. Take social anxiety; the CBT approach focuses on the anxious beliefs which dominate the mind – other people don’t like me, I am worthless, social interactions will not go well for me. So, the CBT activation and exposure process focuses on disproving these beliefs – did that social interaction go as badly as you thought it would? Was there any evidence that people don’t like you? Or, that you are worthless? However, the dreams of socially anxious individuals tend to be dominated by situations which demand aggressive behaviour.

”To rid the mind of a fear we need to expose ourselves to it and force ourselves not to take the avoidant behaviour we normally do.”

For example, the dream of Curtly – a young man with some traits of social anxiety: Curtly is in a shopping mall. A child comes up to him and demands his wallet and phone. Curtly does not want to hand over his possessions but feels he cannot confront the child-thief. The child stands near Curtly with his belongings in front of him, accessible to Curtly should he decide to try and take them back. Curtly makes no attempt to take back what is rightfully his.

Again, we see an in-dream situation which demands a confrontation, and again, we see avoidant behaviour. This dream suggests that the anxiety requiring exposure and reconsolidation is not a positive social interaction, but the ability to put the wellbeing of oneself above that of others, even if that means a confrontation must be had. If a fear of confrontation is the true anxiety, then it is useful to have low self-esteem and to avoid social situations. If you have low self-esteem you will not challenge others that wrong, or disagree with, you, and avoiding social situations removes any risk of confrontation, as it is an emergent property of interaction. This new interpretation of dreams suggests the route out of social anxiety for Curtly is not disproving the beliefs associated with it, instead it is becoming comfortable with confrontation.

Though this theory of dreaming is still in its academic infancy, it comes with a major implication: if dreaming is a biological process designed to make ourselves and others aware of our anxieties – a form of communication so to speak – and one that psychology does not currently listen to, then are the strikingly extreme symptoms of psychopathologies – such as the starvation associated with anorexia, the isolationist tendencies of depression and social anxiety, the scars left from self-harm – forms of communication in their own right? As someone who once suffered from both depression and anxiety, I know how vital the professional help my symptoms attracted was in helping me overcome these issues. Perhaps, by paying closer attention to dreams, we will enable those burdened with anxieties to avoid having to take such self-destructive behaviours in order to get the attention they require.

Written by Joshua Eichler-Summers and edited by Karolina Zięba

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