That doesn't mean they buried their fury: Men and women who recovered best actually had dreams showing stronger emotions, such as anger, about their exes. But they also took more active roles in their dreams and wove in memories that felt similar — for example, of earlier abandonment experiences. Linking past challenges with the present one may help dreamers recover by showing that they have survived similar crises that felt somewhat like this one, Cartwright says.
Further suggestive evidence that dreams might affect recovery from trauma — for good or ill — comes from a study of 39 injured survivors of life-threatening accidents. A couple of months after their accidents, those who had continued to dream about the traumatic event showed the most severe post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms, whereas others who couldn't recall dreams or dreamed about different topics were in better mental health, says psychiatrist Thomas Mellman of Howard University School of Medicine in Washington, D.C. "This suggests it may help to process trauma if people dream in more metaphoric ways or don't recall dreams at all," he says. "Dreams that keep you stuck in the actual incident don't seem to be adaptive."
Such studies don't, of course, prove that the dreams actively helped. But those who study dreams note that the brain in REM sleep (when most dreams occur) is in a somewhat different state: The visual cortex is much more active. At the same time, there's less activity in the brain's prefrontal cortex, the seat of planning, conventional assumptions and censorship. This different state might facilitate new ways of thinking about problems.
"Focused waking thought is not what we need all the time. It sometimes gets us into a channel or rut … our thinking is stuck and can't make the broad imaginative leaps sometimes required," says Dr. Ernest Hartmann, a Tufts University psychiatry professor and pioneering dream researcher.
Walter Berry, who leads a weekly dream group in West Los Angeles, says he's seen these leaps occur overnight. A member of the group, a middle-aged secretary who'd been laid off, described a recurring dream in 2009 about former co-workers deriding and torturing her. Her tormenters turned into monsters, and in one dream she asked them, "Why are you here?" They said, "We just want to show you where to go."
The monsters led her into a long corridor that ended in a desert with beautiful cacti and a nice house for her to live in. She began to think of leaving L.A. for the first time. After greatly expanding her online job search, she landed a job in Phoenix that was better than the one she'd lost. "The dream expanded her horizons," Berry says.
Despite the lack of hard scientific evidence, dream researchers think dreams could hold a trove of insights for people battered by the economy. Wakeful attention and overnight dreaming "are collaborative and interdependent," says Cartwright. Both, she says, can help guide our behavior wisely.