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How Dreams Affect Your Behavior the Next Day

by Jimmy Leonard | Updated 16 Jan 2024

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Do you ever wake up on the wrong side of the bed? It turns out that your dream state may have something to do with your waking-life moodiness. In fact, psychologists tell us that dream moods are related to priming, which is when a first event influences your reaction to a subsequent event. If you’re already feeling freaked out from a nightmare, for example, it’s going to impact your jumpiness in the morning.

Two questions emerge:

  1. Can you do anything to influence your mood in a positive way through dreaming?
  2. If you do wake up in a negative mood as the result of a dream, how do you shake out of it?

Here’s what you need to know about how dreams affect your mood.

The Impact of Dreams on Mood and Behavior

Dream Priming

A 2013 Social Psychological and Personality Science study looked at how dream content affected someone’s waking experience with their partner. Ever have a dream that your bae is cheating on you and wake up in a jealous rage? Or maybe you dream that you’re the one cheating and wake up feeling guilty as sin? Yeah, it’s that kind of thing.

In the study, participants had to complete a relationship assessment survey for a baseline, then two weeks of dream journals and questionnaires about their relationships. The questionnaires took into account real-life conflict, the day’s activities, and even the person’s default personality traits, so as to control for those factors when studying the influence of the dream.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the study found, “Multilevel modeling results indicated (among other effects) that certain types of content (e.g., infidelity) and emotions (e.g., jealousy) in participants’ dream reports were associated with less intimate feelings and more conflict with their partners on subsequent days.” In other words, you fly off the handle in real life because you were wronged in dreamland.

So why is this significant? This study gives us empirical evidence that dreams produce a priming effect, a psychological bias that uses a previous stimulus to influence a present-event reaction — without a conscious awareness that it’s happening. This is related to the idea of subliminal messaging in advertising. If you walk into a bakery that smells like fresh bread, you suddenly feel hungry. If you’re in math class and someone asks you to “make a table,” you’re going to understand that differently than if you were in a woodworking shop and someone made the same request.

The kicker is that many people struggle to remember their dreams. You may be psychologically primed with a certain emotion or disposition but not remember why. If you’ve thought, “I don’t know why I’m in such a bad mood this morning,” dream priming may be the reason.

Can Dreams Put You in a Good Mood?

The examples have been negative so far, but does it work the other way? Can dreams put you in a good mood? As it turns out, emotional carryover into the next day works for positive feelings too, although the effect may not be as pronounced. Here’s why.

We have multiple dreams per night, but, unfortunately, it’s uncommon that they’re all happy. In fact, research suggests that most of our dreams are negative. UC Santa Cruz researcher G. William Domhoff is one of many psychologists to demonstrate, especially in adults, that dream content is more likely to focus on fears, stressors, and anxieties than dancing unicorns. It’s a bummer, but it makes sense. If you spend most of your waking hours stressed out, your sleeping hours will follow suit.

But hey! If reading that bums you out even more, snap out of it! Dreams can influence your mood in a positive way, but you need to do a little work to help your subconscious mind think happy thoughts.

How Do You Think Happy Thoughts Before Bed?

Nothing you haven’t heard before, I’m sure. The most helpful way to improve your dream mood before bed is to take a break. Give yourself about 30 minutes of wind-down time when you can listen to calming music, meditate, pray, draw, or read a relaxing book. Make a list of things you’re thankful for that day or speak some affirmations to yourself in the mirror. What you should not do right before bed:

  • Screen time, especially social media on your phone
  • Read the news (it’s always bad, y’all)
  • Drink alcohol or caffeine
  • Stress-inducing job stuff (e.g. email your boss or finish a project)
  • Start an argument with your partner

That last one sounds funny, but consider all the examples above about negative relationship dreams. If you have something you need to talk out, either do it in the morning or call a time-out so you can do relaxing things before going to bed. Not that this is a relationship advice column, but I’m looking out for you.

How Do You Shake Out of a Negative Mood From Your Dream?

If you’re a practiced lucid dreamer, you can do this in the dream. Look for dream signs, and if you notice a dream drifting in a negative direction, change the narrative. Breaking free from nightmares is one of the most practical applications of learning to control your dreams.

If you wake up in a bad mood from a dream, it’s helpful to start by acknowledging what’s going on. Form a habit of journaling or meditating in the morning, and you can check in with yourself. “I do feel unusually grumpy today. Why is that?” Make a list of things you’re looking forward to or do a quick ten minutes of exercise to start your day. This means you do have to wake up early enough that you have time to do this before work, which for some people can be a struggle.

Remember, the priming effect often takes hold when you don’t consciously realize that you’re affected by a previous experience. If you make a habit of studying and discussing your dreams, you’ll be more aware of what’s influencing your morning emotions, which will ultimately help you make more rational decisions. Sweet dreams!

Jimmy Leonard

Jimmy Leonard

Jimmy is a marketing content strategist and copywriter who moonlights as the editor of Sueño Labs. He writes about dream psychology and battling nightmares. Follow Sueño Labs on socials to connect.

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