How to Have Better Dreams and Better Sleep

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One of us (Boris) started to wonder what was going on, when over a dozen of the CEOs in his executive education class wanted to discuss nightmares during office hours rather than corporate strategy. When people are overwhelmed and the news is full of terrifying images, it's a perfect storm for nightmares and bad dreams.

Increasingly, leaders are coming to understand the importance of sleep for physical and mental wellbeing—but nightmares and bad dreams destroy sleep quality. The good news? It's more possible than most people realize to reduce nightmares and have better dreams.

What Are Dreams?

What do you think about when your mind has a chance to wander? Your to-do list? World events? The people in your life? Events from your past? Art, music, stories? That's what you dream about, too.

Because they're your dreams, they'll be composed of your preoccupations, memories and mental images. Because they happen during sleep, those elements get jumbled together, often making surreal associations your waking mind would not.
Dreams are not suppressed wishes or desires, nor do they have hidden meanings or symbolism. This doesn't mean dreams cannot be meaningful or spur insight. It does mean no particular dream is inevitable.

Dreams can be roughly divided into three categories:

Individual Dreams
The vast majority—75 to 80 percent—of dreams are about daily experiences and preoccupations. Dreams nearly always involve some kind of social interaction, and most, even non-nightmares, are emotionally unpleasant (80 percent of the emotions in dreams consist of anger, sadness and some form of fear and confusion).

One of the most frequent things people dream about is new information or skills they have learned or are learning—hardly surprising given the major role sleep plays in learning. An array of studies have shown that playing video games before bed will lead to similar imagery in dreams ("the Tetris effect"). A study of COVID-19 dreams in Italy showed people were more likely to dream about new habits they had to learn than about presumably more emotionally significant concerns, such as losing loved ones or getting sick.

Typical Dreams
"Typical dreams" are those that appear to be universal: dreams of falling, being chased, sexual experiences, being paralyzed with fear, flying or soaring, having one's teeth fall out, being unable to find a bathroom. Because typical dreams are memorable, universal and sometimes bizarre (teeth, really?), it's natural to think they must mean something important, but their real origins are biological.

You're busy when you sleep—digesting food, experiencing periods of paralysis and sexual arousal, shifting between various stages of consciousness. Different parts of your brain become active or go quiet, hormone and neurotransmitter levels rise and fall. All this gives rise to sensations—falling, arousal, flight-or-fight, disorientation—which are then incorporated into a dream that is remembered because of those strong physical sensations.

The common dream of teeth falling out, for example, has been documented since the time of the ancient Greeks, and interpretations have ranged from debt to death to childbirth and more. The real cause is simpler: the dreamer grinding their teeth. This dream is the result of an anxious sleeping brain combined with a strong, unpleasant mouth sensation.

There is a clear distinction between an ordinary "bad dream" and a nightmare. Nightmares are longer, usually well-remembered, characterized by intense emotion, predominantly fear. Nightmares also feature more death references and severe aggression than bad dreams. Almost everyone has nightmares occasionally, but some people have them much more frequently, and people differ in how much distress they feel over their nightmares.

Close to 90 percent of people who have experienced trauma (anything from violent crime to natural disasters to war) have nightmares. Critically, this includes vicarious trauma. Exposure to media of traumatic events, especially visual images, can also make nightmares worse for a lasting period of time.

Trauma-response nightmares usually end after a few weeks or months. If this does not happen, however, the brain can, in essence, learn the habit of having nightmares. When certain dream elements appear, the brain automatically runs the "nightmare script." Disrupted sleep and the fear of nightmares can lead to daytime depression and anxiety. Nightmare sufferers may even find themselves avoiding sleep altogether.

Nightmares, like other dreams, get their starts in the state between waking and sleeping called hypnagogia. In this state, the mind begins to lose conscious control while retaining some awareness. What you think about in this state is likely to show up in your dreams—more than half of dreams may consist of pre-sleep thoughts and images. Regular nightmare sufferers are more likely to have nightmares when they have a hard time reaching the hypnagogic state and are mentally agitated. This can lead to a vicious cycle—difficulty falling asleep allows time for ruminative, racing thoughts, and such thoughts make it harder to get to sleep.

People who suffer from frequent nightmares can and should take steps to address the problem. Nightmare sufferers sometimes fear that if they do not release negative emotions through their nightmares, the emotions will spill over into their waking life. This is not the case; emotions don't "back up" in a hydraulic way and need to be released.

People who have nightmares are also likely to have the mental resources to end them. These people tend to remember their dreams better, and also have more meaningful and pleasant dreams than the population at large. They also tend to score higher on daydreaming and creativity, which are helpful for the techniques described below.

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Rewriting Nightmares

The gold standard for nightmare treatment is Imagery Rehearsal Therapy (IRT), developed by Barry Krakow and Antonio Zadra, which has a 70 percent long-term improvement rate. IRT has also been shown to be an effective self-help technique—a trained therapist is not necessary.

The self-directed exercise below should take no more than 20–30 minutes. Do try this at home!

1. Write down the nightmare or recurring bad dream you want to modify. If you have more than one, pick one of the less intense ones to start with.
2. Pick the moment when you want the dream to change, after the bad feelings start but before the bad events do. Mentally rehearse the rescripted dream a few times a day. Envision the imagery and feel the emotions as much as possible—the initial fear or anger, and the emotions associated with the new script.
3. Choose a different ending! It can be triumphant or happy or neutral. The important thing is that it feels right to you, something authentic that you can remember. (If you don't normally have dreams of flying, don't choose an ending where you fly away.) For a home invasion nightmare, perhaps the security system goes on and the intruders flee in panic. Or perhaps you calmly offer them food and they are so abashed they fall down in remorse. It's your dream!
4. Rehearse the rescripted dream a few times a day. Try to feel the emotions as much as possible—both the negative and those associated with the new ending. Be specific about what you feel when the dream plays out: Relief? Satisfaction? Glee?
Once you have changed one nightmare into a less disturbing dream, repeat the process as necessary. Often, after an initial nightmare has been vanquished, the others decrease or stop as well.The brain is a habit-learning thing, awake or asleep, and if the habit of nightmares is learned it can be unlearned as well.

Having Better Dreams

Better dreams mean better sleep.In addition, a good dream life can be helpful, cognitively and emotionally. People often dream about learning experiences; these dreams correlate with better recall of the information learned. People also often report dreams helping in problem-solving and providing imagery for creative or work projects. Keeping a dream log has been shown to foster creativity.

To improve your dreams, first make a conscious decision to remember them. Think about this as you prepare for sleep. Take advantage of the hypnagogic state and focus on imagery that is pleasant or meaningful, let your mind drift. In the morning, jot down as much of your dreams as you can remember.

Dreams don't need "interpretation," but they can be analyzed for greater self-understanding. Journaling or talking about dreams can be therapeutic just as talking or writing about any of one's concerns can be. The questions below can be helpful to understanding your dreams:
What was the emotion you were left with when the dream was over? (You can feel more than one at a time)
What were you trying to do in the dream?
What happened? Were you successful ?
Who was in the dream with you?
How did you interact with them?
What memories, new or old, were in the dream?
How did you feel about the dream events while they were happening?
When in your waking life have you been in a similar situation and/or felt like that?
Finally, talking about dreams can be an aid to relationship-building. Leaders need to share their vulnerabilities and concerns without undermining their team's confidence or leaning on them for emotional support.

Talking about dreams allows you to bring up concerns in a once-removed kind of way. It's less threatening for the boss to say, "I had a bad dream about the upcoming board meeting" than "I'm worried about the upcoming board meeting." If you have a nightmare about an upcoming product release, talk to your team about it. You will almost certainly not be the only one! Dreaming better can help you sleep better, which helps you be better, which helps you lead better.

Robin Abrahams is a research associate at Harvard Business School. Twitter @robinabrahams. Boris Groysberg is the Richard P. Chapman Professor of Business Administration at HBS. With Colleen Ammerman he is author of Glass Half-Broken: Shattering the Barriers That Still Hold Women Back at Work (Harvard Business Review Press, 2021) Twitter @bgroysberg