2:41 PM EDT, May 29, 2013
My husband and I just spent 10 days in Southern California, and it was a dream vacation.
In fact, all our vacations seem to be dream vacations. And not in the way that you might think.
Like most working stiffs, we scramble to get to the get-away day. And then we stay up half the night packing and putting the house in shape to leave it behind.
But sleep is not what we seek when we land on those ever-downier hotel beds — because we know what the dreaming will be like.
These will not be old-fashioned anxiety dreams (I am sitting in the French final without ever having been to class; I can't dial the right phone number no matter how hard I try; I left the baby at the mall; I can't remember the combination on my high school locker).
Nope. Nothing that tame, nothing that routine.
For the first two, three or even four nights, I have the most vivid, toxic, stick-with-you, god-awful dreams. I wouldn't describe them to you — even if I could remember them — because you would start backing toward the door.
They are the dreams of a deeply disturbed person, I am sure of it.
But as the week progresses, my dreams lose their power, their ferocity. I have begun to relax and to decompress, and my dreams no longer disrupt my nights and color my days. Similar experiences are not uncommon, I have learned and experts have confirmed.
"You are just getting rid of the garbage you carried with you," said Rosalind Cartwright, author of "The Twenty-Four Hour Mind: The Role of Sleep and Dreaming in Our Emotional Lives." She is a professor emeritus at Rush University in Chicago and has written extensively during her career about sleep and dreams.
On vacation, my mind is disentangling itself from the stressors I was too busy to process while at home, she said reassuringly.
"The first few days of vacation, we are still processing what we left behind," she said. "What we do in a healthy dream process is actually download that negativity and relate it to previous experiences in our long-term memory."
When we make those connections to previous experiences during dreaming, the brain recognizes the stressors and "reminds" us that we have survived them in the past.
"It is all right. I can relax. It didn't kill me the last time. I will be fine," Ms. Cartwright said, quoting my brain.
Dreams are a mystery, and the study of them is fascinating. But scientists seem to agree that dreams are not random hallucinations cocked up by the brain to entertain or terrify us. They are a process.
Dr. Robert Stickgold of Harvard Medical School uses the analogy of the shoemaker and the elves: We go to bed having cut out the pieces of leather for a new pair of shoes, and we wake up in the morning to find the shoes are made and there is no sign of anyone having been there.
The sleeping brain — we couldn't accomplish any of this work if our brains were busy helping us drive or cook dinner — takes images, feelings, experiences, traumas and finds a kind of drawer that contains the same kind of stuff and tucks it away, to be called on when we need the comfort of the familiar.
"It is a way we keep our mental health," said Ms. Cartwright. "Some problems take more than one night. But it is the inner voice of a therapist, and I think it is wonderful.
"Dreaming works on the negative feelings and finds the roots and the strengths to overcome them. And to remind us that we can."
The problem is, most of us don't get the kind of sleep during the workweek that we do on vacation, and we arrive at the hotel or the beach house with an extra bag, packed with all that unprocessed stuff. And it takes the brain a few nights to tidy things up, as it were.
That's why Ms. Cartwright is a fan of taking two weeks of vacation at a time — it takes that long before the dreams have done their work, and we can relax.
"Most dreams are like digestion," she said. "They just do their work and we don't notice them. Unless you have indigestion, of course. Then you have to pay attention to the process."
Susan Reimer's column appears on Mondays and Thursdays. She can be reached @firstname.lastname@example.org and @SusanReimer on Twitter.com.
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