What did you dream last night? Was it good, or was it bad? More often than not, people forget their dreams in the morning. You may vaguely remember dreaming, but you can’t recall the details.
Up next in our Understanding Your Dreams Series is nightmares. They stalk the night, and are easier to remember than good dreams are. In the morning, even fully-grown adults still shudder at what they faced during sleep. As unpleasant as nightmares are, developing research suggests that bad dreams may actually contribute to a person’s well-being.
Distinguish your bad dreams
Before you read any further, it is essential to understand what kind of nightmares you may be experiencing. Research suggests that occasional nightmares, meaning the ones that you only have twice per month at the most, may cause beneficial side effects, particularly to mental health. If this is the case for you, you may continue and find out how you may use your scary visions to your advantage.
Sadly, mental health takes a hit when you experience nightmares weekly or even daily. You may be facing one of the many sleep disorders out there, such as nightmare disorder, night terrors, or an illness entirely unrelated to sleep. We will touch on these a bit more, but if this sounds like you it’s best to speak to a healthcare professional.
When bad dreams become a problem
Frequent nightmares may be highly distressing. The scares and the frights may activate the body’s fight or flight response one too many times, leaving a person disturbed. Frequent nightmares can cause an array of issues such as sleep deprivation, a fear of falling asleep, and disruption to daily life. These recurrent nightmares are known as Nightmare Disorder and require seeing a doctor or specialist to overcome the issues.
Terrors of the night
Night terrors are another serious condition that can affect sleep. They occur during non-Rapid Eye Movement sleep, so people who suffer from the condition rarely remember having episodes.
Night terrors involve the person becoming agitated and frightened instead of jumping awake from fear. You stay asleep during the terror, and whilst you may not remember the dream itself, you might feel tired or remember the feeling of fear.
Infrequent night terrors shouldn’t be too concerning. However, once it becomes frequent, it may pose a problem, especially if it also affects your everyday life.
Non-sleep related issues
Another sleep disorder that may cause recurring nightmares is sleep apnea. Yet, in most other cases, the root problem does not trace to a sleep disorder but an entirely different psychological or medical issue.
Post-traumatic stress disorder and anxiety can also cause frequent nightmares. A traumatic event, although not always linked to PTSD, may also cause nightly dreams of the event. Even drugs can trigger bad dreams since they do initiate chemical reactions or changes in the body. Drugs which may cause nightmares include antidepressants, narcotics, and blood pressure medications.
If you suffer from any of the issues outlined, it is best to seek medical advice. Nightmares can be good, but only if they come occasionally. Bad dreams only bring problems when experienced day after day.
The perks of nightmares
Do you only have nightmares now and then? It might surprise you to learn that there are actual benefits to experiencing the occasional scare.
Contributes to health and wellness
You experience nightmares during REM sleep, which acts as the essential ingredient to high-quality z’s. During this stage of sleep, blood runs through your muscles and vital organs more than the brain. As a result, your muscles repair, tissues of organs recover, and the rest of your body undergoes a much-needed refresh.
REM sleep also acts as the ingredient for dreams, and yes, including nightmares. You may have an unpleasant night, but a nightmare still indicates deep sleep. In the end, your body enjoys enough sleep for its recovery from everyday life.
Prepares you for real life
Aside from the physical ramifications of sleep frights, neuroscientists posit that they serve as “virtual threat training programs”. In these “programs”, you may face potentially dangerous situations, helping you think about their real-life equivalents in the morning. Naturally, you may then prepare yourself for such eventualities. Once any of them do come, you may be ready to respond correctly. So yes, dreaming about zombies will prepare you for a zombie apocalypse, if it ever occurs.
This theory comes from a study of volunteers, whose insulas and cingulate cortices activate during nightmares. The insula in the brain plays the role of identifier and evaluator of emotional responses, while the cingulate cortex in the brain prepares a person’s fight or flight response.
In the same study with a different set of subjects, those who reported more nightmares in the dream diaries asked of them had fewer fear responses when exposed to frightening images. In fact, even the fear centres of their brains, the amygdala, activated less. This study then goes to show how a person becomes more adept at managing themselves during dangerous or distressing situations.
How to manage phobias
Psychiatry and behavioural therapy may sometimes use a method called “exposure therapy”. This method exposes patients to their fears, phobias, or traumas in a controlled manner to develop their capacity to fear and avoid less. Nightmares may act then as a natural form of exposure therapy, as by experiencing your phobias in your dreams, you can manage them better in real life.
A way to understand yourself
Lastly, yet most importantly, disturbing dreams, terrifying as they may be, may arise out of suppressed emotions that a person has. Stressors, causes of anxiety, and points of worry may lead to various repressed emotions. The suppression weakens and releases these emotions during sleep; they mainly come out during nightmares.
How do you identify these emotions? You may try to remember and interpret the frightening dreams since they contain clues about their roots. Once you find their meaning, you may be able to trace the reason for the suppression of emotions and resolve the causes. In this process, you may discover more about yourself that may surprise you.
Explore your dreams, even the scary ones
Over 50 per cent of adults experience nightmares from time to time. These scary dreams may not be pleasant at all, but they may have the potential to improve your body, your mind, and your life. When they come occasionally, nightmares may help you as much as good dreams do.