always dreaming

Hi Anonymous—

Statistically, you either are one of those rare people who has extraordinary recall for dreams, or you may be suffering from a type of sleep disorder. Let’s consider memory for dreams first, and the fact that you occasionally find the recall process stressful.

Most people, like your family members, find recall for dreams elusive and, as a consequence, wish they had better recollection of their dreams. (See "Remembering Dreams" in the Common Dreams section of this website.) On the other side of the spectrum, there are some people who occasionally complain that they dream too much, and who wish they could “turn off their dreams.”

The fact that your dreams reflect current stresses and issues in your life is not unusual. Typically, this is one of the great benefits of dreams—they show us what we are thinking about or are concerned with in our lives—often at a subconscious level. In this sense, dreams help us to identify issues that are important to us. As you stated in your report, however, dreaming about a current stress does not necessarily provide you with relief from that stress. Rather, because the dream brings the concern to your attention yet again, it seems to have the inverse effect. You are reminded of the stress, and as a consequence your stress can increase.

An older model of understanding dreams—first proposed by Sigmund Freud—was that dreams function as a type of psychological “release valve.” Freud believed that dreams were reflections of unconscious tensions in our minds. When sufficient tension gathered, a dream emerged which served to release the “pent-up energy.” Freud, however, did not possess the benefit of modern technology. In the 1950’s we learned that all people dream—every night—regardless of their level of psychological tension. Essentially, Freud was unaware of the biology of dreams. Had he lived longer, he would have learned that all people actually dream about one hundred minutes per night—which is as long as any film you might see at a movie theatre or on television. What most of us share in our experience of dreams, we learned, is an extraordinarily poor memory for them. Most of us are lucky to recall even a few minutes of a previous night’s dreams. Many people routinely awaken with no recall at all for dreaming.

The dreams that we tend to remember best are those dreams which involve a great deal of tension or stress—disturbing dreams and nightmares especially. In this light, we can today see why Freud found the correlation between dreams and tension to be so convincing. Nevertheless, it remains a curiosity why Freud found dreams to be a “release valve” for tension. If dreams truly functioned in this manner, then a person who suffered from nightmares would find his or her nightmares to be a cathartic (releasing) experience. But as you know from your own experience, anxiety dreams do not have a soothing or relieving effect upon dreamers. Rather, they tend to make us freshly aware of unresolved tensions and conflicts within us, and seem often to heighten our anxiety. Today we understand that dreams merely reflect tensions that exist within us. We also know that if we wish to release these tensions, then we need to, in our waking lives, consciously identify their source and take concrete steps to correct whatever situation(s) is responsible for them.

A piece of information that you include in your question causes me to be suspicious of second, possible source for your unusual recall of dreams. You write that “even if I put my head on my desk at the office and fall off to sleep I dream.” My first concern is that it is unusual to be so tired at work that you actually would fall asleep while resting at your desk. Is this a common experience for you? If so, you either are not sleeping sufficiently at night, in which case you are exhausted during the day and can actually fall asleep on a “break,” or there is another reason, which may be a sleep disorder called Narcolepsy. The three primary symptoms of Narcolepsy are persistent daytime sleepiness, a tendency to sleep at inappropriate times, and—you guessed it—the frequent experience of dreams during any of these daytime nap opportunities.

Before you become over-concerned, be aware that Narcolepsy is one of the most successfully treated of all sleep disorders. Take a few moments to read the "Signs of Narcolepsy" found under the "Diagnosis" heading in the Better Sleep Tip section. If the symptoms sound familiar to you, link over to the Narcolepsy Network website for more detailed information. People’s experience of Narcolepsy varies—some people have mild cases, while others have more severe symptoms. If you suspect you may have Narcolepsy, by all means take the time to visit a sleep disorders center in your area. You want to be seen by a doctor who is board certified in sleep disorders medicine. This doctor will take a history and may also want you to spend a night in a sleep lab to do a series of simple, painless tests that help diagnose the condition. If the tests are positive, very effective treatments are available.

Thanks for writing in, and best of luck.

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