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Dreams May Hold Key to Beating Depression

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WebMD Health News

Jan. 18, 2002 -- When a marriage hits the skids, most people get depressed. But why do some recover from divorce -- get on with their lives -- while others languish, full of depression and regret?

Their dreams may hold clues that will help their recovery, says Rosalind Cartwright, PhD, chairman of psychology at Rush University and director of the Sleep Disorder Service at Rush-Presbyterian-St. Luke's Medical Center in Chicago.

Since the 1960s, Cartwright has studied dreams to better understand their purpose. Today, most researchers think dreams are "nonsense, nothing more than flotsam and jetsam floating through your mind at night," she tells WebMD. Only recently, she's come to realize that "dreams are our mood regulators."

"Most people, if they go to bed angry, upset, anxious, blue, down, having a negative mood, they feel better in the morning," Cartwright tells WebMD. "Not the depressed; they feel worse. In the morning, they're at their lowest point. Something wrong has happened overnight. They haven't mood regulated, they've gotten worse."

Cartwright chose marital separation -- certainly an emotional, life-altering event -- to test her theory. Each volunteer was "at the point that they have decided to break up the marriage," she says. Her NIH-funded study is in its sixth year.

She has analyzed dreams of 12 depressed volunteers as well as others who were not depressed. She did not tell any volunteer whether they had scored as "depressed" or not. "I didn't want them to get treatment," she tells WebMD. "I wanted to see how they got over it on their own, because most people do."

Each volunteer slept in the Rush Sleep Disorders Center for several two-night sessions over a five-month period. During those nights, they were connected to an EEG to measure brain waves and an EOG to track eye movement indicating periods of rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, when dreaming occurs.

Normally, the first period of REM sleep involves "sparse" eye movement, says Cartwright.

Depressed people typically have their first REM-dream sleep earlier in the night than non-depressed people, says Cartwright. "The first dream comes too early, and it's much too active in terms of eye movement. Their eyes are going off like fireworks, like they're watching a ping pong game, really rapid."

Cartwright and colleagues woke up each volunteer five minutes into the REM/dream period, to ask about their dream. She also saw the volunteers in her office at the beginning, middle, and end of the study period to see how they were doing. None of the volunteers received any psychotherapy or drugs during the study.

During the five months, nine of the 12 depressed people improved significantly enough that they no longer tested as depressed.

The role of the ex-spouse in the dreams signified much about this healing process, she says.

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