The Role of Dreams in Mental Health

Gather an understanding of the role of dreams in mental health. Discover the purpose of dreams and how we can encourage better mental health outcomes.


People have often said that dreams have hidden meanings, but did you know that they can uncover the truth about your mental health, too? That’s right! Understanding and studying the role of dreams in many research studies has actually shown how people’s fantasies illustrate a fair bit about their mental health. If you’re having recurring dreams or simply curious to see how dreams actually are connected to your mental health, then you have come to the right place. 

In this article, we’re going to present information on the role of dreams as connected to mental health, exploring the psychological function of dreaming, how it impacts mental health, and even recent studies about dreams during the pandemic. We’ll even explore how you can support your mental health. Let’s start with exploring what researchers say about the purpose of our dreams.

What is the Psychological Function of Dreaming? 

Whether we dream about falling or we dream about our greatest aspirations, scientists say that there is a purpose to our dreams, believe it or not. Dreams are experiences that are mental, emotional, and sensory and are solely tied to our sleep – whether we nap or sleep overnight. They happen most often during our deep sleep, otherwise known as our REM sleep cycles.

Even then, no one is really sure why we dream. We do know, however, that we as a species have been able to dream for as long as we can remember! It’s normal and involuntary, even when we are in the midst of a nightmare. Some have hypothesized that we dream because it helps us build memories, process emotions, and conduct some “mental housekeeping,” so to speak. But that doesn’t take away from the fact that some dreams are random and mean nothing.

One study on PubMed explored the purpose of nightmares and dreams, hypothesizing that people dream as a means of finding a way to cope with life’s challenges as they mature. It’s a means of “mental housekeeping,” but specifically for trauma and what we need to cope with. Even then, regardless of their purpose, our dreams do impact our mental health in unique ways.

How Do Dreams Impact Mental Health

It is undeniable that our dreams impact our mental health, but it often depends on what we are dreaming about. It’s actually a lot simpler than people imagine, as shown by a study conducted in Xi’an, China. The Chinese participants most commonly dreamed about falling, being in school, getting chased, eating good food, and even trying to do the same task repeatedly. However, those who dreamed about getting chased or falling experienced more negative mental health, while the other dreams were more positively affecting them.

In other words, if we dream something negative, we may have worse mental health. However, other studies have said that even then, we may encounter a nightmare in our sleep, wake up in the morning, and feel perfectly fine! In essence, it appears that what we dream about has the ability to affect us, but it depends on the individual. At the very least, this negative nightmare may only affect us unconsciously, so we don’t even notice it in our day-to-day lives (Source: MDPI). 

How Did Our Dreams Change During the Pandemic?

You may be surprised to find out that our dreams changed during the pandemic, too, potentially showing how our own mental health challenges in the world seeped into our imaginative worlds when we slept. Studies on dreams and mental health from this era only further show the role of dreams in our mental health.

An article published in PubMed showed that dreams were a reflection of one’s mental health but also helped with regulating one’s mood. People, more often than not, dreamed about sickness, confinement, and bugs, all of which led to more stress and poor mental health outcomes, like more anxiety or depressive symptoms. In some cases, the poor mental health came before the bad dreams. 

Another really interesting finding that arose out of the pandemic was the fact that people were more likely to recall their dreams. When people can recall their dreams more vividly, this is usually a sign of people dreaming and sleeping deeper due to their stress. Even with greater dream recall, people experienced more anxiety and depression due to the intensity of the stress surrounding the pandemic (Source: Taylor & Francis Online). 

While this is only one example of the role of dreams in mental health, it does show how they are connected without a doubt, whether one’s mental health impacts their dreams or vice versa. 

What Can I Do to Support Better Mental Health Outcomes?

Now that it is clear how dreams either influence or illustrate your mental health, you might be wondering how you can improve your mental health. Unfortunately, dreams are either random or purposeful, and it’s hard to tell which. On the other hand, there are some ways to lower your chances of bad dreams or, rather, increase your chances of feeling less anxious or depressed.

No one can prevent a nightmare, but you can take steps to help your mental health. If you are in a job like those in the US National Guard, you may find yourself more likely to encounter bad dreams due to more deployment and stress (Source: PubMed). Consistent stressors can hurt your mental health and cause adverse images and themes in your dreams, but there are studies that show that evidence-based treatments can help overcome these mental health challenges. Even though dreams can be predictors of potential mental health diagnoses, it’s important to connect with mental health professionals to fully understand what your dreams may mean or how you can combat your stress.  

Dreams Are Reflections or Clues to Our True Mental Health

It’s true: our dreams are a reflection or clue as to how our mental health is really doing. With the information presented in this article, you hopefully have a clearer idea of dreams, their purpose, how they impact us, and how recent studies have shed new light on the topic. You may even have an appreciation for the power of our dreams! If you want to learn more about your sleep and monitor your health, check out Pillow to gain new insights into your resting hours. 


Written by

Marie Soukup

Marie Soukup is a seasoned copywriter, editor, and Integrative Nutrition Health Coach with a certificate from the Institute of Integrative Nutrition (IIN). With years of experience working with brands across diverse industries, Marie is passionate about holistic health and crafting compelling content.

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