Sweet Dreams Begin with Breathing: Dreaming and Sleep Apnea
Using Dreams to Diagnose Sleep Apnea
The dreaming mind is a translator. It takes input received while dreaming and translates it into symbolic imagery. Input runs the gamut from memories, thoughts and emotions, to physical sensations and bodily messages.
Include breathing on that list. Your body has a monitoring system that reports to your mind while dreaming. If your airway is obstructed from a condition such as sleep apnea (aka OSA: obstructive sleep apnea), your dreaming mind will translate it into symbolic imagery. Here’s what to watch for, beginning with my all-time favorite example.
A woman who attended a lecture I gave about dream interpretation at Canyon Ranch Spa in Tucson asked me why her husband has recurring dreams about being stuck upside down in a chimney. She said it’s so common, they refer to it in shorthand as “the chimney dream.”
“Does he have sleep apnea?” I asked. Her face lit up. Yes, he has sleep apnea.
“Imagine you are the dreaming mind and you want to create imagery to symbolically represent an airway. A chimney is an airway. Now, how do you tell the story about an obstructed airway? One way is to stick your husband upside down in the chimney.”
A house in a dream can symbolize the body — it’s the place where your mind lives. The body’s “chimney” is the airway. Another good choice for symbolizing the body’s airway is a ventilation system.
After many years of experience at interpreting dreams, I know you can gain timely and important information from them about your health and what’s happening with your body while you’re sleeping. Let’s focus on what your dreams and dream life can tell you about your sleep life and conditions such as apnea.
Dreams and Sleep Apnea: What to Watch For
Sleep apnea can manifest symbolically in dreams as:
- choking while trying to swallow something large or sharp
- trying to breathe while in outer space or underwater
- a clogged pipe or stuck elevator
These are just a few of the ways I’ve seen dreams translate airway obstruction into symbolic imagery; the possibilities are legion.
A panicky feeling can take over the dreaming person when their airway is obstructed, and that’s a sign I look for relating to sleep apnea. Think about it: every cell in the body is hollering for more oxygen, or CO2 is building up in the bloodstream and the clock is ticking before serious harm is caused. If a person experiences the above sort of symbolic dream imagery and it isn’t accompanied by panic or a felt sense of an important message trying to reach them, I go a different direction in interpreting it.
IMPORTANT: Dreaming about the above scenarios does not automatically mean sleep apnea or OSA! They could just as well be symbolic of something else.
A Dream that Screams “Sleep Apnea!”
Next, another example that I think is a dream sparked by apnea. The person who experienced it only knows for sure he’s never been medically diagnosed. There’s no way to say that what he experienced is apnea or something else, but include “dream diagnostics” along with medical diagnostics and a compelling case is made. I recount the dream below in first-person and in the words of the dreamer. Feel the full impact. Imagine it’s your dream:
Had a dream last night that I’m standing alone in a small room. Out of nowhere I pull a straw out from my pocket. I close one side of it with my hand, while the other I put in my mouth. Then I start to suck in all the air to try and suffocate myself. I did that a total of four times and felt my heart pounding and hurting because of a lack of oxygen. I woke up after the fourth time in a panic and my heart was pounding as though I was suffocating in my sleep, too.
That sure looks to me like a dream about an obstructed airway. A straw can symbolize an airway, and in the dream he closes the straw and can’t breathe through it. You, as the dreamer, are a participant in the story and act out the symbolism. You follow a script written subconsciously. When the dreamer closes off one end of the straw and tries to breathe through it, he acts out symbolism. A breathing issue is the most likely source or stimulus received by his dreaming mind and translated into symbolic imagery and action.
Notice there’s no story before or after that scene, just the action with the straw and the physical response. That suggests to me the scene was inserted into another dream in response to the blocked airway. Pardon the interruption but we have an emergency here, says the dreaming mind, and it creates the imagery of breathing through the straw. Notice also the dream’s setting: in a small room, alone. Great way to open the scene. And a great way to symbolize his body and its condition at the time of the dream.
Reflect on the dream’s details, noting the symbolism combined with physical response:
…I close one side of [the straw] … while the other I put in my mouth. Then I start to suck in all the air to try and suffocate myself.
…I felt my heart pounding and hurting because of lack of oxygen.
…I was suffocating in my sleep.
Plus, in the dream he tries four times to breathe through the straw. That’s about as many unsuccessful breathing attempts in a row you can tolerate before physical panic sets in.
He says as far as he knows he doesn’t have sleep apnea or sleep-related breathing issues, but his dream sure says otherwise. It’s possible the dream is symbolic of something else — he could be suffocating in the personal sense of being under too much pressure and stress. He could feel severely constrained, panicky, or weighed down by heaviness. He could be too narrow in a figurative sense: narrow-minded, narrow view or outlook. He could have had an anxiety attack while sleeping. The cause-and-effect relationship between the body and dream content is a two-way street. Dream content responds to what’s experienced by the body, and the body responds to dream content, such as when you dream about running and mimic the action while asleep by thrashing your legs. We don’t know which direction this person’s dreaming mind is translating input into imagery and sensation.
But notice how his body reacts with symptoms such as pounding heart rate and pain. That tips the scales toward surmising that sleep apnea is the culprit. There are other possible reasons for why his body responded that way. You experience dream imagery as if it’s actually happening and your body can react. Stress, embarrassment and powerfully-felt emotions such as fear, anxiety and anger can cause a person to constrict their breathing while awake or asleep. After 25 years of interpreting dreams, though, I’ve developed my gut instinct and it says “this dream is about a constricted airway.” Whether it’s a one-time thing or an ongoing sleep-related breathing issue can only be guessed after the fact, but it gives the person something to think about and watch out for.
Monitoring Your Dreams and Sleep
Which raises a question: how to know that your airway is constricted while you’re asleep other than by recognizing the signs given by your dreams? Well, you could spend time in a sleep lab, but first I suggest you use a voice-activated recorder to monitor your sleep. The sounds of snoring or labored breathing should be loud enough to activate the recording device. I found several apps for phones. Here are two of the best-reviewed:
Otherwise, you have no way of knowing that you are experiencing apnea while asleep. A common response is to deny it: “I don’t snore!” Or “it’s not that bad, is it?”
A close member of my family is a heavy snorer, and to hear it at its worst is worrisome. I remember too well the first time I heard him experiencing seriously bad breathing difficulties while sleeping — from across the house I heard a funny sound coming from his bedroom. I approached the doorway and listened. Ten seconds elapsed and he didn’t breathe. Twenty seconds. Twenty-five seconds. Then “WHOA-ACK!-ACK!-ACK!-ACK!” as he powerfully pulled in and forced air through his obstructed airway. Followed by a few normal breaths, then a few labored ones, then snoring, then silence. No breathing.
Then the jackhammer again. That’s not snoring; that’s apnea and if left untreated it can cause health problems. I woke him up (gently) and urged him to sleep on his side, and continued on following nights to urge him to sleep on his side. He protested, saying he’s more comfortable sleeping on his back.
[I tell ya, sometimes I really want to sleep on my back instead of on my side, but wanting to avoid feeling like crap when I wake up because I snore (or worse) through the night is a powerful motivator that overrides everything else. I’ve adapted, and you can too. If you snore, DON’T SLEEP ON YOUR BACK!]
Another way to tell if your airway is constricted while you’re asleep is by how you feel when you wake up. I wake up with a headache after sleeping on my back and snoring extensively. Hello, oxygen deprived brain (or more accurately, hello, carbon dioxide saturated brain). When I wake up tired after a full night of sleep, it means I’m not getting the deep sleep I need to feel rested. Why? Airway obstruction, sometimes. Maybe most of the time. And I have less dream recall on nights when I sleep badly.
My personal observations are born out by research into the dream lives of people with sleep apnea compared with people without it. People with obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) have less dream recall than people without OSA and report more unpleasant dreams and less emotional variation.
Interesting findings, wouldn’t you say? The findings add to my diagnostic toolbox by pointing me toward possible causes, especially when I’m asked as a dream interpreter about nightmares. Sometimes they can be horrible and recurring and indecipherable and I find nothing in the person to explain it, so I move to the two most likely suspects: apnea and SSRI response, especially withdraw from drugs in that class. I’m asked frequently about sleep issues, too, and have discovered correlations with dreaming issues such as nightmares. My diagnostic tools are extending beyond traditional dream interpretation to include breathing-related issues.
Another diagnostic tool arises from the fact that sleep apnea disrupts the normal rhythm of sleep. The person with OSA misses deep-stage sleep that provides the greatest rest and recuperation. They will report waking up tired after sleeping enough to otherwise feel refreshed. Also, the most vivid and intense dreaming occurs during REM stage, the pinnacle of sleep. Unless a person is sleep-deprived (in which case they tend to fall quickly into REM-stage sleep), they won’t experience REM until the end of the sleep cycle. But apnea prevents cycling through sleep stages normally and shedding core heat from body, and it prevents the necessary long, shallow rhythm of breathing to cycle through sleep stages and get to REM. The person won’t sleep or dream as deeply.
It all ties together.
Breathe! Do it like The Iceman Wim Hoff
On a side note, this Wim Hoff breathing method quickly rids CO2 headaches. He demonstrates a longer version, or just breathe fully and forcefully 20-30-40 times in a row then breathe out completely, relax, and wait for as long as you can before inhaling again to 100% and holding for 5-10 seconds. Feel that O2 saturate your brain. Squeeze the air into every cell of your body. Breathe out strongly, and breathe normally. It works for me. It’s a helluva way to energize after waking up.]
Sleep Apnea Nightmares
Now imagine the dreaming mind, the translator of all input received including messages from the body, responding after a person hasn’t breathed for, oh, let’s say 30 seconds. Snoring has already caused airflow to decline for, oh, ten minutes or so. Now CO2 is building up rapidly in your bloodstream. Soon it will be at poisoning level. You might even be turning blue. Can you imagine how the ensuing extreme panic signals from the body would translate into dream imagery?
It’s the most horrifying nightmare imaginable, which is how it’s been described to me by the few apnea patients I’ve worked with as a dream interpreter who remember what they were dreaming just before jolting awake. People want to forget those memories because they can be horrifying.
You could experience apnea-induced nightmares and not know the cause. You jolt awake to breathe and don’t know breathing has been obstructed up till that point unless someone says so who witnesses it, or you recognize the symptoms: elevated heart and breathing rate, headache, pain, and gasping and choking. Sleep-apnea nightmares fly under the radar this way and could be an under-recognized source of chronic nightmares.
[Specialists who diagnose sleep-related breathing issues would be wise to ask about a patient’s dreams. To my knowledge, it’s not a common practice in sleep medicine.]
Obviously, sleep apnea disrupts the sleep cycle, which means that people who have it experience fewer and shorter REM stages. Which means less dreaming and less vividness. Which means fewer dreams to recall and less emotional variation to them. Keep in mind, snoring is caused by airway restriction and can produce similar symptoms and effects as mild apnea.
Signs of Sleep Apnea
How do you use this information to tell whether you have sleep apnea or other sleep-related breathing issues? One way is to ask yourself if you think you dream less, have less recall, or less emotional variation than you used to. Another way is to recognize and respond when you aren’t sleeping well. Your attention span is shorter. You’re more irritable and temperamental. You have difficulty processing new information and recalling old information.
These are signs and they’re obvious. Sometimes, though, I think that people avoid reaching that conclusion because of the prevalent attitude in society that sleep issues are somehow less important than other medical issues. They aren’t even recognized as legit in some circles, and you’re perceived as weak if you express a need for more sleep or better quality.
Disrupted sleep, a growing trend that now affecting hundreds of millions of people around the globe, has other causes such as excessive light and noise, stimulants, and the use of electronics immediately prior to sleep. A growing body of evidence suggests that we aren’t dreaming as well because we aren’t sleeping as well, and we aren’t sleeping as well because of a variety of factors that include not breathing as well.
This trend needs to change.
Using Dream Life to Diagnose Sleep Apnea
A checklist for you — what to watch for:
- Recurring dreams with symbolic imagery related to airway blockage, such as the “chimney dream.”
- Any dreams with airway-related symbolism.
- Panic signals from the body that disrupt sleep.
- Waking up from such dream imagery with elevated heart rate, sweating, panic, etc.
- Poor dream recall.
- Less emotional variation in dreams.
- Less dreaming.
- Nightmares — often savage and apparently meaningless — that can’t be interpreted through decoding the symbolism.
- [Not dream-related] Sleeping enough but not resting and recuperating.