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October 28, 2017

Rutgers study suggests health benefits of dreaming in your sleep

We’ve all been there: it’s the night before a big, semi-dreadful event -- the first day of school, the removal of your wisdom teeth -- and the anxiety is enough to keep you up most of the night.

Though it’s not always easy to sleep, it turns out not falling into a dream-ridden rest could be making matters even worse.

In a new study published in the Journal of Neuroscience, researchers from Rutgers University found that regularly falling into rapid-eye-movement (REM) sleep may lead to better mental health. 

In the study, people who spent more time in REM sleep had lower fear-related brain activity when given mild electric shocks the next day. Despite the suspense of being greeted with electric shocks, dreamy sleepers were less likely to develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) when confronting scary, fearful events, the study suggests.

Though lack of sleep is already tied to a multitude of health problems, this study, as well as others, suggest that it could actually be a lack of REM sleep, or a lack of dreams, that causes some of those health issues.

In fact, cutting your sleep short -- i.e., not getting that standard seven or eight hours health professionals typically suggest -- can cut out the REM phase of sleep entirely, as most dreams occur in that fifth and final phase of sleep after the body has transitioned from a shallow to a deep sleep.

TIME points to several studies that suggest the health benefits of REM sleep.

“I think of dreaming as overnight therapy,” said Matthew Walker, professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, to TIME.

“It provides a nocturnal soothing balm that takes the short edges off of our emotional experiences so we feel better the next day.”

Some positive effects of REM sleep found in various studies include improved perception of other’s emotions, less likelihood to suffer strong reactions to emotional images, and less anxiety facing scary events, as noted in the recent study out of Rutgers. Other studies have linked lack of REM sleep to depression and Alzheimer's Disease.

Unfortunately, often-used devices such as alarm clocks can hurt your chance for REM sleep. Alcohol, smoking, and artificial lights don’t help, either. For the best sleep, Walker notes, a cool, dark room and regular bedtime are two dependable ways to achieve REM sleep.

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