According to new psychology findings, the strategies we used to regulate our emotions can influence our dream experiences. The study, published in the journal Dreaming, found that cognitive reappraisal appeared to reduce dream intensity by lowering negative state and trait emotions.
Negative emotions from our waking lives seem to make their way into our dreams. Some researchers have proposed that dreaming might serve to downregulate our negative emotions. More recently, scholars have noted that dreams tend to contain not just negative emotions, but other intense emotions from our waking lives, including positive ones.
Study authors Sam Siu-Sing Wong and Calvin Kai-Ching Yu wondered how our emotion regulation tendencies might influence dreaming. Presumably, if dreaming helps us regulate emotions from our waking lives, there should be some link between our dreaming and our emotion regulation tendencies. There is indeed some evidence that the coping strategies we use can influence our dreams. For example, research suggests that suppressing unwanted thoughts while awake can cause these thoughts to “rebound” during dreaming.
“Dreaming has been fascinating to me since my young age,” explained Wong, a research affiliate of Neuropsychology Laboratory of Hong Kong Shue Yan University and a PhD student of Sleep and Pain Laboratory of the University of Warwick. “After diving into the literature, dreaming is unequivocally related to emotions, particularly waking emotions. Emotion regulation is a way to modulate waking emotional experiences consciously or unconsciously and therefore posited to play an influential role in the relation between waking emotions and dream experiences.”
Wong and Yu conducted a study of their own to explore how individual differences in emotion regulation might indirectly influence dreaming through both positive and negative emotions during wakefulness. A sample of 249 Chinese adults from Hong Kong participated in the study.
To assess individual differences in emotion regulation, the participants completed a questionnaire that assessed two emotion regulation strategies: cognitive reappraisal and expressive suppression. They also completed a scale assessing their competency in regulating negative and positive emotions, and assessments of state and trait negative and positive emotions. Finally, participants answered questions regarding their typical dream experiences.
The results revealed that cognitive reappraisal scores were negatively tied to negative state and trait emotions and, in turn, dream intensity scores and prevalence of typical dream themes. Emotion suppression was negatively tied to positive emotions, and in turn, prevalence of typical dream themes.
Next, difficulty regulating negative emotions was indirectly related to dream intensity and dream themes through negative state and trait emotions. Interestingly, difficulty regulating positive emotions was directly linked to participants’ total dream intensity scores and prevalence of typical dream themes. The authors note that the scale used to assess positive emotion regulation difficulties included items related to impulse control like, “When I’m feeling good, my behavior becomes out of control.” This suggests the possibility that a lack of inhibition — and not necessarily a difficulty regulating positive emotions — could be what influences dream experiences.
Overall, the findings suggest that a person’s emotion regulation affects their emotional experiences while awake, and in turn, their dreaming. Dream experiences are therefore not simply a reflection of a person’s emotional preoccupations but of their ability to regulate their emotions and the strategies they use to do so. Cognitive reappraisal is an effective method of lowering intense negative emotions, and it seems that this strategy can help reduce dream intensity and frequency of typical dream themes.
“In light of the findings, it is worthwhile paying attention to the dreams you have remembered and seeing how it could potentially relate to your concerns or emotionally intense incidents that happened during waking,” Wong said. “In the following, this discovery or realization might, to some extent, imply the difficulty of emotion regulation, such as the frequent application of maladaptive emotion regulation strategies.”
The study, “Direct and Indirect Effects of Dispositional Emotion Regulation on Dream Experiences”, was authored by Siu-Sing Wong and Calvin Kai-Ching Yu.