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Dreams May Hold Key to Beating Depression

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The ex-spouse was present in everyone's dreams at first, along with a lot of negative feelings, anger, unhappiness, missing them, she says.

But toward the end of the study, it was clear that those getting over the depression had put the ex-spouse at a distance.

"The ex-spouse 'character' was there," says Cartwright, "but in a way that showed they were essentially unhooked from the relationship. It was no a longer reference point for how they felt about themselves or how they felt about a new person in their lives. It was irrelevant."

"It was more like, 'Thank goodness I don't have to pay attention to what he says anymore. I'm very independent, I don't have to ask his permission, don't have to worry about what he's doing. If I'm dating, I don't have to worry what he thinks about it,'" she says. "It's not that they had forgotten the person, but were enjoying reclaiming who they were, enjoying a sense of liberty."

Those who were depressed were still having negative, anxious dreams about the ex-spouse, she says.

The sheer action of waking people up during anxious dreams helped get them past the depression, Cartwright tells WebMD.

"It stops an abnormal process from continuing," she says. "Depressed people don't solve problems during their dreams, like other people do, they pile up their troubles, and the last dream of the night is the worst. They wake up in a worse mood if you let them sleep through those dreams. But if you interrupt them, they normalize and feel better in the morning."

Try it at home, Cartwright says.

With a little help from some friends, she's invented what she calls a "home dream recorder." It's not on the market just yet, and won't be until she has published her study results.

The home dream recorder has an EOG monitor and a movement monitor, so it's clear whether the person is awake or asleep. "If they're still and their eyes are moving, they're probably dreaming," she says. An alarm is programmed to go off when the EOG shows eyes are moving for five minutes. The person speaks their dream into a voice-activated tape recorder, then the equipment resets automatically. Next time REM sleep begins, the recorder activates again.

"It's the do-it-yourself approach," she says.

But it's not for everyone, Cartwright tells WebMD. "People with a history of serious depression, childhood abuse, no good love relationships, need some help rebuilding."

Eric Nofzinger, MD, is a sleep disorders specialist and associate professor of psychiatry with the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. He has conducted functional brain imaging studies during REM sleep, and those studies too have shown that the "emotion areas" of the brain are indeed very active in the dreams of people who are depressed. He has followed Cartwright's work for a number of years.

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