Primary Research

March 6, 2017 in uncategorised

Why We Have Nightmares and What They Mean

Psychologists usually define a nightmare as ‘a terrifying dream’. Most children experience nightmares – some even nightly, but they usually outgrow them. Adults with frequent nightmares have traits related to either the ‘terrifying’ aspect and/or to the ‘dream.’

These are:

1) Anxiety: Often the same people experiencing terrifying dreams are more afraid of their daytime world.

2) High dream recall, and vividness of dreams and waking imagery: Many of the people with frequent nightmares also report more vivid, beautiful, ‘peak experience’ dreams.

Most of the drugs which increase nightmares also increase either general anxiety (some malaria meds) or vivid dreaming in general (antidepressants). Likewise rarebit (cheese) or spicy foods may wake you up more to remember all sorts of dreams but are not specific to nightmares. So nightmares are a result of anxiety or a vivid dream-life – or often both.

Nightmares themselves fall into two categories. One is ‘garden-variety’ nightmares.  Much like other dreams, these have a fantastic narrative, and the terrifying threat is often one seen only in film or fiction – a witch is chasing you, teeth or other body parts falling away, a completely law-abiding dreamer who has inexplicably murdered someone.

There is a flood of relief upon awakening and finding oneself in the sane, safe world. Some people want to stop these nightmares – but some find them interesting or don’t much mind them. Others downright enjoy them: I’ve heard many people compare their nightmares to the thrill of horror films.

Dreamers distressed by garden-variety nightmares shouldn’t just try to suppress them, however. It’s more useful to reflect on your nightmare or interpret them with. You may gain insight into stresses and fears – (see below for more on how to do this). And nightmares can inspire creative types. When I was researching my book, The Committee of Sleep, I found writers and artists used their dreams in their work, but nightmares had an especially high rate of incorporation – probably because they are such unusually dramatic, powerful dreams.

The second category of nightmares is the one no one wants to have: post-traumatic nightmares. After a person has suffered a horrific event, they tend to have recurring dreams which re-enact that event – either completely literally or often with a bit of dream-like distortion or by making the trauma even one step worse than waking life.  These nightmares re-traumatize the dreamer, making them feel like the horror has just happened, even if it’s years in the past.

They’re not like other dreams, including garden-variety nightmares – both of which happen mostly during Rapid Eye Movement Sleep. Post-traumatic nightmares happen across all stages of sleep. They may have at least as much in common with daytime ‘flashbacks’ as with other dreams and nightmares. All victims of post-traumatic nightmares want them to stop. Fortunately there is a good treatment that helps many victims.

Unlike the garden-variety nightmare, there is little point in trying to understand why the post-traumatic is happening or what it’s about. The most effective treatment is what is called ‘imagery rehearsal therapy’ or ‘incubating’ a ‘mastery dream’. This grew out of the observation that many who’d been having post-traumatic nightmares, would eventually have a ‘mastery dream’ in which the event changed in some positive way. Sometimes this was realistic – they escaped from the attacker or someone put out the fire; in other cases, it changed in a fanciful, dreamlike way – the burning house or attacker shrunk down to minute size that couldn’t hurt them.

Therapists who noticed this found that they could talk to clients about it and just hearing about the phenomena made it somewhat likelier to happen. Then we began specifically coaching them on “how would you like your dream to turn out differently?”.

For interpreting garden-variety nightmares or re-scripting post-traumatic nightmares, many dreamers find they can do this effectively on their own, but others may want to seek out a therapist trained to work with dreams.

Parents can help children understand nightmares with some of these same interpretative questions phrased in child-friendly language.

Children are also subject to another scary sleep phenomena, night terrors. Rare in adults, the night terror consists of awakening in terror with no content at all or a simple image or idea. Kids who experience this often scare their parents with screams but go right back to sleep and don’t remember it in the morning. Just keep in mind night terrors diminish dramatically after a few years. Nightmares decrease too, but many adults still have this frightening but potentially insightful experience.

Why Nightmares Happen

Nightmares can be vivid and frightening detailed images that can leave us in a state of panic and fear after we wake up. Most young children experience nightmares, with an estimated 10 percent to 50 percent between the ages of 5 and 12 years having nightmares severe enough to disturb their parents, according to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine (AASM). Children’s nightmares may stem from listening to a scary story, TV show or movie, or even feeling anxious and stressed during the day from starting school to a death in the family. Typically, most kids will grow out of them, but what happens to adults?

Only two to eight percent of the adult population is plagued by nightmares, says the AASM, which involves some of the same triggers seen in children’s nightmares. Lauri Quinn Loewenberg, a professional dream analyst and author of Dream On It, Unlock Your Dreams Change Your Life, stresses the importance of understanding that dreaming is actually a thinking process; a continuation of our thoughts stream from the day. “[T]he nightmare is when we are thinking about difficult issues during REM (Rapid Eye Movement) and trying to sort them out. We often try to ignore our difficult issues with distractions during the day but when we are asleep and are forced to be alone in our own heads, these difficult issues will be addressed,” she told Medical Daily in an email.

Unresolved conflict is not the only causation of nightmares, poor eating habits can also contribute to the frequency of these terror episodes. People can have nightmares after having a late-night snack. Eating meals or snacks that are high in carbohydrates in the late hours of the night can increase brain activity and body metabolism.

Carol Wasserman, a certified holistic health practitioner with a private practice in Manhattan, N.Y., also suggests an unknown allergy can trigger reoccurring episodes. “For example, if you have an allergy to peaches, but are not aware, you could be getting nightmares, and once you stop eating peach ice cream at night the nightmares stop” she told Medical Daily in an email. Wasserman adds she was unaware she was allergic to shrimp and had nightmares after consumption. “Every time I ate shrimp I had a restless night and bad dreams. So I stopped the shrimp and now I sleep peacefully.”

Nightmares in adults can be spontaneous, but are generally triggered by psychological factors like anxiety and depression, and the result of poor nutrition. Moreover, sleep disorders including sleep apnea and restless legs syndrome can cause people to experience chronic, recurrent nightmares. What happens to the brain when these factors contribute to the onset of nightmares?

The Brain During A Nightmare

Nightmares tend to occur in the last third of the night when REM sleep is the strongest. Sleep is divided into four stages: stage 1 (sleep onset), stage 2 (light sleep) and stages 3 and 4 (deep sleep) — the REM stages. REM sleep occurs every 90 minutes during the night, and is associated with high brain activity, rapid eye movements and inhibited voluntary motor activity. Typically, dreaming occurs in all stages, with 80 percent of people awakened during REM sleep and sleep onset (stages 1 and 2), while 40 percent of persons are awakened from a deep sleep, according to an article in the American Family Physician.

The amygdala, which is regulated by the front lobes of the brain, seems to be the culprit when it comes to nightmares. Neuroimaging studies of the brain while dreaming show the amygdala is highly activated during REM. In Patrick McNamara’s book, Nightmares: the Science and Solution of Those Frightening Visions During Sleep, he emphasizes the amygdala’s role in handling negative mentions such as fear and aggression. This may explain why the over-activation of the amygdala during REM can produce fear-responses in the dreamer.

“Once we enter REM sleep, which is when dreaming takes place, the brain is working differently (certain parts of the brain become dormant while others become highly active), so instead of thinking in literal terms and words you are thinking in pictures, symbols and emotions… metaphors!” Loewenberg said.

The Dreamers Who Have More Nightmares

Most young children are susceptible to nightmares, and a pocket of the adult population will experience the occasional nightmare in their lifetime. However, which adults are more prone to bad dreams than others?

Several studies have found age, personality type, and trauma can influence the frequency of nightmares for dreamers. A 1990 study published in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology found 47 percent of college students had at least one nightmare in a two-week study. These nightmares were not tied to self-reported anxiety, suggesting nightmares are more prevalent than previously thought in young adults.

However, an everyday fear, like a car accident, is known to trigger nightmares in the blind. A 2014 study published in the journal Sleep Medicine found blind people have four times more nightmares than those with vision. The study confirmed the nightmares were associated with emotions the blind experience while awake, such as the potential of embarrassing social situations like spilling a cup of coffee.

“I have found that it can depend on past trauma and, more common, personality type,” Loewenberg said. She added, the more sensitive people, those who avoid confrontation at all costs and who get let down very easily are more prone to nightmares, simply because life and choices are more difficult for them.”

Truth Behind Nightmares

There a few common symbols in nightmares, such as death and murder. Death is typically about something changing or ending. When dreaming about death and children, they tend to occur when the child has reached a milestone such as learning how to walk, starting preschool, or learning how to drive. Loewenberg shares, “dreaming our child dies, for example, is typically caused by the difficult realization of how fast time is going and the young, needy child we love to cuddle and care for is dying off and a more independent child is emerging.”

Like death, murder is about an ending or change, but with a forced ending. We often tend to dream someone is trying to murder us when we are feeling pressured to put an end to or change something either about ourselves or our lives. Loewenberg uses the example of when a relationship has ended or when there’s a pregnancy; the pregnancy forces a dramatic change in our behavior.

However, the causation of nightmares can be tied to a difficult issue from long ago. One of Loewenberg’s clients had nightmares her husband would leave her in a dark, frightening parking lot at night, or that she was being attacked in a war. The client was in a happy marriage, financially secure, and healthy. “But it turns out, she was abused by both her parents as a child and made to feel unloved and unwanted. She never got help with her childhood trauma and learned how to process it so those feelings and memories were pushed down,” Loewenberg said.

Like the client, unresolved conflicts don’t go away, and shape our personality. Childhood trauma can lead to feelings of insecurity or constantly seeking validation, and feel like you’re constantly under attack if you receive criticism. This suggests our life experiences, both past and present, not only have an influence on our lives but in our dreams as well.

In order to have a better grasp of our dreams, we must begin to address the issues that plague us in the day. “We talk to ourselves all day long while awake. That doesn’t change when we sleep,” Loewenberg said. She advises, “the better conversation you have with yourself while awake will ensure better dreams at night.”

 

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