Is dream sleep different for insomniacs?

Q:  I am having problems sleeping and I think it is affecting my dreams.  It seems I am dreaming way too early in the sleep cycle.  I understand dream sleep is supposed to occur after the deeper stages, so I am wondering if I am somehow missing out on my deep sleep.

A:  REM (Rapid Eye Movement) or dream sleep normally occurs after the deeper NREM (Non-Rapid Eye Movement) stages in predictable cycles each night.  That’s why you can take some satisfaction in knowing that if you’re dreaming vividly you’re probably benefiting from the deeper stages of sleep.

The higher priority for NREM sleep is further evidenced by studies that show people who are sleep deprived typically make up the deeper NREM stages first, before the REM.

If you happen to awaken during a deeper NREM stage, it’s possible you may remember a dream.  Dreaming, once thought to happen only during REM sleep, is now considered to be a continuous process throughout the various sleep stages, including NREM or slow wave sleep.

However, the most vivid dreaming typically occurs during REM, when blood pressure, heart rate, body temperature, brain activity, and respiration all increase, and though still asleep we are in something more akin to a nearly awakened state.

For normal sleepers, during each night’s typical 5 or 6 cycles of NREM-REM, the earlier cycles usually have more NREM and less REM, but during the later cycles toward morning the amount of NREM decreases and REM increases.

However, as we age, we often enter a REM stage faster, and the amount of time spent in the deeper NREM stages is typically reduced compared to when we were younger.  This is normal consequence of aging and by itself nothing to be concerned about.

Interestingly, a recent study showed the pons is very important during REM.  The pons is a deep inner part of the brain that blocks signals from the brain to the body during REM, creating a sort of paralysis that prevents us from acting out our dreams.  This study showed that apparently the pons is also involved with memory consolidation and retention, especially with emotional memories.

For insomniacs, we suggest you will benefit by letting go the worry about what type of sleep you’re getting.  Instead focus on addressing whatever root causes you can find that are interfering or disrupting good sleep in the first place.  These root causes typically are some combination of excessive worry about the idea of sleep and bad sleep habits.

Highly effective, drug-free methods to identify and treat these common nonmedical underlying causes for insomnia are contained in cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) specifically designed for sleep.  Most people who use CBT methods are helped, and many become normal sleepers again.

You will find much more information and good resources about using CBT sleep training methods online.

We hope you find some reassurance in knowing some scientific facts about sleeping and dreams, and that reassurance will help you feel more relaxed and confident about improving your own sleep experience.

Explore posts in the same categories: Health, Insomnia, sleep

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