Public Release: 

Dreams may provide glimpse into subconscious of divorced depressed patients

Rush University Medical Center

Research being conducted at Rush-Presbyterian-St. Luke's Medical Center in Chicago has provided doctors here with a glimpse into how the dreams of those who are depressed from a recent divorce may contribute to overcoming depression. This research may provide clues as to why some people seem to recover from depression while others languish without showing any improvement. Rosalind Cartwright, PhD, director of the Sleep Disorder Service, and colleagues designed a study to test the hypothesis that people who are depressed after a marital break up will emotionally adjust more rapidly if they are able to construct and recall well-developed, emotionally-rich dreams. Cartwright and her team also theorized that if dreams involving the ex-spouse become less frequent and less negative, depression would remit.

Preliminary data from this study, funded by the National Institutes of Health, reveals that when dreams of the ex-spouse are seen in a casual or distant manner, the recently separated or divorced person will begin to recover and cope with this life change. Those who are not coping well with a recent marital separation have sparse dreams, and if the ex-partner appears at all in the dreams, they are seen in a negative role, often as weak, rejecting or punishing. In the first phase of the study, Cartwright conducted extensive dream analysis of 12 volunteers who slept in the Rush Sleep Disorders Center for several nights over an eight-month period. All volunteers had recently been separated or divorced from their first spouse and showed clinical signs of depression, based on a standard depression test.

"The preliminary data suggest that emotional problem solving takes place during dreaming," Cartwright said. Of the 12 patients studied, nine improved significantly enough so that they no longer tested as depressed.

Now, Cartwright is seeking to increase the number of volunteers in the next phase of the study to determine if these preliminary results hold firm for a larger group of people going through divorce.

"We hope the next phase will corroborate the role of dreams in adjusting to disturbing life events. We were able to detect this in the first group of volunteers who were having a hard time adjusting emotionally," she said. "Now we would like to broaden the study to also include those who are adjusting well to divorce and see how their dreams differ from those who are depressed, and how their dreams change over time. People interested in volunteering for the trial must be recently divorced from a marriage that lasted at least three years; they cannot be taking any anti-depressants or undergoing psychotherapy for depression. According to Erin Baehr, PhD, volunteers will undergo two nights of sleep recordings during three sessions over a 5-month period. On one night of each session, "we will wake each volunteer during REM sleep to collect their dreams, and have them rate whether the dream was positive, neutral or negative as well as the emotional quality of the dream." The first month will also include an additional night in the laboratory to allow volunteers to get comfortable with the sleep study procedures and to screen for sleep disorders. Volunteers will be paid for their participation.

Cartwright said that if neutral or negative dreams that change into more positive dreams during the night relieve depression, equipment that monitors dreams in the home might eventually be developed to help treat depression. "We find that when feelings in the dreams that are reported just before the morning wake up time are negative, such as fear, anger, anxiety or disgust, the person is likely to have a continuing depressive mood. Therapists can make use of home dream reports to help depressed patients who are not recovering on their own to develop more positive dream scenarios," Cartwright said.

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Individuals interested in enrolling in the study should call 312-942-3686.

Rush-Presbyterian-St. Luke's Medical Center encompasses the 824-bed Presbyterian-St. Luke's Hospital (including Rush Children's Hospital), the 110-bed Johnson R. Bowman Health Center and Rush University. Rush University, which today has 1,271 students, is home to Rush Medical College, one of the first medical schools in the Midwest. It also includes one of the nation's top-ranked nursing colleges, the Rush College of Nursing, as well as the College of Health Sciences and the Graduate College, which offer graduate programs in allied health and the basic sciences. Rush is noted for bringing together patient are and research to address major health problems, including arthritis and orthopedic disorders, cancer, heart disease, mental illness neurological disorders and diseases associated with aging. The medical center is also the tertiary hub of the Rush System for Health.

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