Everyone gets them, although women suffer more than men do. What are they? Nightmares. What is really the science behind nightmares? You wake up with a loud scream, heart pounding fast and sweat dripping all over your body. You probably have had to soothe your child back to sleep after being rudely awakened by a horrible nightmare. Nightmares are common among children but why do they happen in the first place? Is it more than just a bad dream? Does it have an impact on your overall health? First of all, you might be interested to know the origin of the term before understanding the science behind nightmares;
THE TERM NIGHTMARE DATES WAY BACK TO THE 13TH CENTURY. IT IS A WORD DERIVED FROM THE WORD “MARE” WHICH IS AN OLD ENGLISH TERM REFERRING TO DEMON THAT TORMENTS PEOPLE IN THEIR SLEEP. IN 1700, NIGHTMARE WAS DEFINED IN A DICTIONARY AS A DISEASE WHEN A MAN IN HIS SLEEP ASSUMES THERE IS A GREAT WEIGHT (MONSTER)LAYING ON HIM.
According to the American Academy for Sleep, an estimated 10-50% of children between the ages of 5 and 12 have severe nightmares enough to disturb their parents. These frightening dreams may stem from listening to scary stories, anxiety or stress experienced at school, or death of a family member. They may wake up in a state of panic and fear even after waking up. The good thing is that these don’t usually last long during childhood. Children will eventually outgrow them. The same source states that these same triggers are responsible for nightmares in adults.
Professional dream analyst Lauri Quinn Loewenberg attempts to explain the science behind nightmares. He states that dreaming is actually a continuation process of the day’s activities and thoughts. Nightmares are often experienced during Rapid Eye Movement,(REM) when the mind is occupied with difficult issues. It is common to ignore such issues when we are awake but the mind has a way of addressing these difficult issues when we are asleep. Besides unresolved conflicts, other causes if nightmares in adults include;
- Poor eating habits; late night snacks,
- Eating foods high in carbohydrates late at night
- Consuming foods which you have an allergy
- Sleep disorders such as apnea
All these habits increase brain activity and lead to restlessness.(Berquier & Ashton, 1992). If you find yourself having recurring nightmares, try to keep a journal of your day’s activities. You will be surprised to see the connection. The more effort you make in communicating to yourself and addressing unresolved issues during the day, the less frightening dreams you will have at night. It is also worth to note that isolated nightmares are normal and may not be a cause for alarm. But repetitive nightmares which result in extreme terror is a strong reason to seek medical attention.
What type of dreamer are you?
Studies have shown that some adults are more prone to bad dreams depending on age, trauma and personality type.(Hartamnn et al.,1987). Another common trigger is an everyday fear that can get stuck in our minds. Fear of accident might cause one to have nightmares. Regarding personality type, the people who are more reserved and often avoid confrontations are more prone to nightmares.(Aurora et al.,2010) This is simply because making tough choices is harder for them. As a result, they often go to sleep with the burden of unresolved issues. Loewenberg adds that understanding the science behind nightmares may stem from unresolved conflicts. A child who suffered trauma will grow up with feelings of insecurity and will feel attacked when under criticism. Such life experiences will not only affect our lives but our dreams as well.
Behavioral therapies may be recommended especially when the nightmares are associated with Post Stress Traumatic Disorder. This is the most studied form of nightmare.
- Imaging rehearsal therapy; this involves picking up a nightmare to modify, then imagining a different outcome for a more positive dream. After this process, the dreamer is then encouraged to rehearse the modified nightmare. The idea of this therapy is to eventually train your mind to generate better and more appealing dreams.
- Accepting unpleasant feelings; a psychotherapist might make a dreamer accept the nightmare, no matter how horrible it was. The reason behind this is that pain and displeasure are part of being human so by accepting such feelings, the less intense they become.
So as you think about the science behind nightmares, what does your bad dream tell you about your conscious life?
Aurora RN; Zak RS; Auerbach SH; Casey KR; Chowduri S; Krippot A; Maganti RK; Ramar K; Kristo DA; Bista SR; Lamm CI; Morgenthaler TI. Best practice guide for the treatment of nightmare disorder in adults. J Clin Sleep Med 2010;6(4):389-401.
Berquier A., Ashton R. (1992). Characteristics of the frequent nightmare sufferer. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 101, 246–250
Hartmann E., Russ D., Oldfield M., Sivan I., Cooper S. (1987). Who has nightmares? The personality of the lifelong nightmare sufferer. Archives of General Psychiatry, 44, 49–56