Four Ways You Can Use Your Dreams To Treat Depression

October 13, 2011
Woman with Headache image

While most people feel sad at times, these feelings usually go away in a few days. Sometimes the feelings persist and develop into “Major Depression,” when one remains depressed most of the day, nearly every day, for two weeks or more. Symptoms of major depression include loss of interest or pleasure in everyday or special activities, loss of motivation, changes in sleep (either increased or decreased), fatigue, feeling worthless or guilty, trouble concentrating and thoughts about death.

For those who battle major depression, the days and nights can pass slowly and painfully. However, most people don’t know that one of the most unique—and effective—ways to treat depression is to focus on the dreams that come along with it.

So, how can you use your dreams to treat depression? Here are four techniques to consider:

  1. Challenge Your Negative Thoughts

    When people become depressed, they often have dreams about being worthless, useless, hopeless, helpless victims. Such dreams—sometimes referred to as “masochistic”—the dreamer being ridiculed, blamed, attacked, injured, disappointed, punished, thwarted or excluded. Aaron Beck, MD and his colleagues at the University of Pennsylvania made this important observation fifty years ago (1959, 1961) and created one of the most successful current treatment methods, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), which involves challenging such negative thoughts about one’s self. CBT is now usually done by challenging one’s daytime distorted thoughts about one’s self, but you can do CBT on yourself by reviewing your dream and asking, “Is this really true of me, or is it distorted, colored by my depression?”

    How can you apply CBT in your life? Make one list of the negative features depicted in your dream(s) and another list of your positive qualities. Compare the two lists. Challenge the conclusions of your dreams. See a therapist if you need help with the process. If CBT alone is not sufficient, you may benefit from antidepressant medication. Many effective treatments are now available and new ones appear every few years. For some people the best treatment is CBT plus medication.

  2. Search for Clues about Illnesses or Side Effects

    Several medical conditions can lead to depression, including: chronic pain, coronary artery disease, pancreatic cancer, anemia and hypothyroidism. Some medications produce depression as a side effect: beta blockers for hypertension, benzodiazepines for anxiety, Interferon for hepatitis C, Chantix for smoking cessation. Sometimes your dreams can provide clues about such illnesses or medication side effects. Dreams suggesting physical injury or illness may be sending you a message to consult your doctor or dentist about needed treatment. Seeking out and receiving this treatment can make your negative dreams and depression go away.

  3. Understand the Grieving Process

    Unresolved grief following death of a loved one, divorce or loss of a job can be associated with depression. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, MD, has described five stages of normal grieving following catastrophic loss. These stages include denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Dreams of grieving people tend to mirror the stage of grief they are currently going through. It is helpful to review and understand the grief stages in order to interpret your dreams when going through a grieving process. Usually, the grieving process resolves itself at the acceptance stage. If one has difficulty reaching this stage, it may be necessary to seek professional treatment for depression.

  4. Change Your Nightmares to Get Rid of Them

    Sometimes depression is accompanied by recurrent nightmares. A nightmare can leave you depressed the whole next day or even longer. There is a method for eliminating recurrent nightmares known as dream revision therapy or imagery rehearsal therapy (IRT). The actual technique involves writing down the nightmare content as a text, re-scripting the text to produce a better outcome, rehearsing the revised text, preferably with others and then seeing what dreams occur during subsequent days to weeks. The method works especially well with posttraumatic recurrent nightmares, a hallmark of posttraumatic stress disorder. Untreated PTSD often leads to major depression. Yet, changing the end of the recurrent nightmare usually makes the nightmare go away, as well as the PTSD and depression. Getting rid of nightmares is the most effective method of treatment for PTSD. Medications tend to be less effective. Therapy is generally ineffective unless it addresses the trauma. While one can sometimes change nightmares successfully on one’s own, it may be helpful to learn the technique first from a trained professional.