Science Says Dreaming While You Sleep Can Help You Face Your Fears In Real Life

by Julia Guerra

There are two kinds of people in this world: those who remember their dreams, and those who wake up in a fog with no recollection whatsoever of the stories their imaginations told throughout the night. Personally, I love when I can pinpoint every minute detail when I wake up from a great night's sleep, but whether or not you remember your dreams isn’t so much of a concern. The question is, is it important to dream while sleeping, period? Science says your dreamlike state does more than tell wild stories; it might just prepare you to face your fears in real life.

Ask anyone with a phobia of any kind, and I can guarantee they’re able to rattle off a list of coping mechanisms they stand by when the going gets downright terrifying. If someone is afraid of sharks, for example, they’ll avoid the ocean. You probably wouldn’t catch someone who is deathly afraid of clowns glued to a screening of Stephen King’s IT, and people who have a fear of spiders have their SOs exterminate the creepy crawly over the bathroom sink instead. But new research suggests you might not need a fallback strategy to ease your fears; according to the experts, dreaming alone should do the trick.

Huffington Post reports that a recent study published in the Journal of Neuroscience demonstrated that people who generally spent more time in the REM stage of their sleep patterns throughout the night showed less fear-related brain activity when exposed to mild electric shocks the following day. For those of you who don’t know, REM stands for rapid eye movement, and it occurs in 90-minute intervals throughout the night. Because of the brain’s frequent activity during this time, the researchers believe that the act of dreaming can protect a person from “enhanced fear” and make them less prone to trauma — as if we needed another reason to press snooze and linger in bed.

So, how does REM sleep help us overcome our fears?

In a 2014 report published in the Journal of Neuroscience, researchers from the Boston University School of Medicine (BUSM) learned that there's a specific brainwave — otherwise known as a P-wave — that is triggered during REM sleep that makes it possible for the brain to consolidate memories of safety.

According to a statement made in a BUSM report, the study’s lead author Subimal Datta explained that triggering P-wave activity in the brain is crucial to overcoming fears in real life. It's also extremely helpful in conjunction with exposure therapy, a method used to treat anxious patients by exposing them to their fears in a safe environment in order to create what is called an extinction memory to replace feelings of disturbance.

So, what does this all mean exactly? From what I understand, in order to overcome your fears — and, hopefully, prevent them from becoming full-fledged disorders — your brain need to associate that angst with safe memories. By doing so, when someone is approached with a situation that they'd normally find unnerving, it makes it easier to cope.

To feel the effects of the REM cycle, you'll want to make sure you're getting a deep enough sleep.

We all know a good night's sleep is crucial for feeling more alert during the day, remembering important information, and much more. Now that we know it may be just as important to dream if we're looking to face our fears while we're awake, it's that much more vital for everyone to clock in the recommended six to eight hours per night, and to strive for a quality of sleep that's deep enough to work its magic.

Of course, this isn't to say you need to go all fixer-upper and tear apart your entire bedroom in order to create the most optimal sleeping oasis (though more power to you if you have the time/patience to do so). There are plenty of little details you can easily tweak to improve your sleep quality that don't require a fat wallet, let alone a full bedroom renovation.

For example, if you wake up to sunshine blaring through your curtains, I highly suggest investing in either blackout curtains or a durable sleep mask to shield any and all traces of light from creeping up on you in the a.m.

Temperature also plays a huge role in how you fall and stay asleep, because if you can't get comfy, there's no guarantee you won't end up tossing and turning. If you tend to quickly get hot under the covers, skip cozying under a comforter, and, instead, snuggle under a pair of light sheets.

It's also a good idea to be aware of what you're munching on before you snooze. For example, if you're chowing down on spicy dishes shortly before hitting the hay, there's a good chance your stomach will make you rise and shine in the middle of the night to make a bee-line for the bathroom. Stick to lighter meals, healthy greens, and cool it on the liquids an hour or so before settling under the covers.

Sweet dreams!