Stress is recognized as the number one proxy killer disease today. The American Medical Association has noted that stress is the basic cause of more than 60% of all human illness and disease. These include chronic fatigue, headaches, dizziness, ADD/ADHD, anxiety, irritability, anger, and panic disorders, decreased energy level, mood, and appetite, grinding teeth and tension in your jaw, insomnia, immune system dysfunction, asthma, ulcers, depression, nervousness, increased heart rate, strokes, heart disease, hypertension, diabetes (both type 1 & 2), arrhythmias, digestive disorders, upset stomach, abdominal pain, irritable bowel syndrome, weight gain and obesity, decreased sex drive, muscle tension, fibromyalgia, complex regional pain syndrome, alcoholism, drug addiction, tobacco addiction, paranoia, and suicide. Stress is a contributing factor to a ll of these conditions. How do your dreams contribute to stress and illnesses?
Every night you go through three to four dream cycles, each lasting about twenty minutes, totaling about eighty minutes out of each twenty-four hours. You will spend about 29,200 minutes a year, 2,336,000 minutes over eighty years, or about four and a half solid years of your life dreaming.
Your body doesn’t care if your stress happens when you are awake or dreaming. It can’t tell the difference. If you see a python ahead of you in the twilight on your path, it doesn’t matter if you’re dreaming or awake; in either case, if you get scared, your body will release a cascade of 1,400 biochemical events in your body. Even though you are asleep and dreaming, your body will react as if you were awake, but with one important difference: it can’t run from the snake or physically fight it. It cannot thereby burn the powerfully corrosive stress hormones out of your body because you are dreaming; you can’t move so that you don’t run into a wall or out your window in your sleep. Those powerful stress hormones are like battery acid. If they aren’t flushed out of your body, guess which system in your body they will attack first? They will attack your weakest system. If it’s your digestive system, you’ll get more indigestion, gas, constipation, or upset stomach. If it’s your cardiovascular system you’ll be more prone to high blood pressure, arrhythmias, and heart attacks. If it’s your immune system, you’ll develop allergies, asthma, or arthritis. Those stress hormones are more powerful in causing disease in those eighty dream minutes than similar waking stress events because they just sit there; they don’t get broken down nearly as fast as when you are awake. This is important. It is a significant, widely unrecognized contributor to stress, illness, poor recovery, and preventable death.
Your body doesn’t care if your stress is real or imaginary. You walk closer to your dream python and discover it is only a rope lying on your path. You are relieved, but your body has still gone into the alarm stage of the general adaptation stress syndrome descibed by Hans Selye, M.D. You have still damaged your physical and emotional health, even though you realized you were “dreaming.”
Your body doesn’t care if you have a small or big dream stress, like that dream python or you have stage fright, or just frustrating dreams of losing your keys. If you automatically trigger the release of this cascade of 1,400 biological events dozens of times each day in your waking life, will that magically stop just because you are asleep and dreaming? You will continue to think stressful thoughts, generate stressful dream scenes, and feel stressful feelings whether or not you ever remember a single dream. We have seen that this damage is greater than waking damage because you can’t run from or fight your stress. Your dream stress does more harm to your health than your waking stress, and you probably don’t even remember when or how you were destroying your physical and mental health while you were asleep.
Both stress and dreaming make you do stupid things. Combining them is like drinking and driving, only worse. Stress causes what brain researchers call “cortical inhibition,” meaning you react instead of respond. You don’t think clearly when you’re stressed; how you respond to others and to circumstances is impaired. You perceive things that aren’t there and perceive things that people do or say in distorted, incorrect, and unhelpful ways. If this is true in your waking life, how much more true is it in your dreams? These misperceptions in turn generate added stress, which in turn do more damage to your health.
Dream stress, like waking stress, keeps you locked in the Drama Triangle. The Drama Triangle is a concept from Transactional Analysis that says that if you play the role of persecutor, victim, or rescuer, you will end up playing all three of them eventually. This is as true in dreams as it is in your waking life. If you are laughed at in a dream you may well feel persecuted and experience yourself in the role of victim. You may attempt to rescue yourself by arguing with the person who is ridiculing you, ignoring them, changing the scene, waking up, or going lucid in the dream and perhaps changing them into something desirable. In any case, because you are engaging in self-rescuing, you remain stuck in the Drama Triangle, which means that you are reinforcing misperceptions that cause stress, illness, and shorten your life.
You are oblivious to your dream stress. This is not only because you don’t remember your dreams. Even if you remember your nightmares you are inclined to think, “It’s only a dream,” and to dismiss it as quickly as possible so you can focus on things that are more important, like getting ready for work. Just as alcoholics can so pickle their bodies that they can drink antifreeze and survive, so you have critical, self-persecuting, self-defeating thoughts that are “normal.” You routinely have dreams that are stressful and reinforcing of dysfunctional belief systems that keep you stuck in ways of thinking that not only make you sick but keep you unsuccessful at reaching your life goals. You will tend to discount these, thinking, “I don’t have nightmares; I don’t find myself in the Drama Triangle often in my dreams.” Stress adds up. Your unknown, unrecognized, minor dream stressors add up. They are making your body burn out faster.
You can learn to stop dream stress. Just as you can learn to reduce and defuse waking stress, you can learn to reduce dream stress. You don’t even have to remember your dreams to do so. As you learn to avoid waking reactivity and misperception, these skills tend to carry over into your dreams, reducing toxic dream over-reactions and delusion. For instance, learning to recognize and avoid invitations into the Drama Triangle in your waking relationships and your thinking will result in less stress, creating less persecution, victimization, and rescuing in your dreams. If in addition you learn productive pre-sleep dream incubation by setting strong and clear positive intentions before you go to sleep every night, you will increase your immunity to dream stress. Do so by imagining or writing down and reading over how you are going to respond to likely stress tonight in your dreams. The most likely stressors are the unresolved worries, concerns, and hurts of today. Another vital step is to learn to meditate and practice every day. Meditation has been shown to be extraordinarily effective at reducing stress. When you meditate, you learn to take the role of witness to your thoughts, feelings, and experiences, thereby objectifying sources of stress so that they are no longer about you. This will carry over in a general way into your dreams and you may, in fact, find yourself meditating in your dreams. Another powerful tool is to practice Integral Deep Listening. IDL interiewing of life stressors, as well as dream stressors, like monsters, reframes these experiences in ways that transform them from threats into allies in your development.
You can learn to wake up and handle stress in the moment – even in your dreams. Most people unsuccessfully use the binge-and-purge approach to managing stress. They stress out all day, believing that they can recover when they drive home, listen to music, eat a good meal, watch TV, surf the internet, have a drink, have some sex, and get a good night’s sleep. But they will not get a good night’s sleep if they’ve been stressing out all day. Instead they will have dreams that revisit those stressful events in different allegorical ways in an attempt to resolve them. In the process of dream problem solving they misperceive and over-react, only making the stress worse. Similarly, going to the gym, a yoga class, or chilling out on the weekend is too late to stop the stress response, which happens in the moment. If you are going to stop stress, you need tools to use not only immediately when you become stressed, but before – when you feel stress coming on.
The best way to manage stress is to deal with it in the moment when it comes up. This is essentially what you are doing when you sit down and meditate. You are learning that instead of thinking a thought, feeling a feeling, or experiencing a bodily twitch you can observe yourself thinking feeling, and experiencing. The idea is to learn to replace automatic reactions to your life stresses with healthy responses, moment to moment. You can even do this in your dreams. It is what you do in a dream when you take IDL interviewing techniques and use them to question dream characters instead of reacting to them. To learn more about IDL, read Waking Up by this author, available at Amazon.Com, or go to IntegralDeepListening.Com and DreamYoga.Com.