The Academy of Sleep Medicine describes nightmares as “recurrent episodes of awakening from sleep with recall of intensely disturbing dream mentation, usually involving fear or anxiety, but also anger, sadness, disgust, and other dysphoric emotions.”
If you’re worried that nightmares are a warning of some sort, relax. Don’t take them literally. In nightmares, we feel like we have no control over the imaginary scenes that are playing out, but they’re just that: imaginary. However, they do often reflect fears or obsessions.
According to Dreams.co.uk, the 10 most common bad dream themes are:
- Our teeth falling out
- Being chased
- Being unable to find a toilet
- Being naked in public
- Being unprepared for an exam
- Being in an out-of-control vehicle
- Finding an unused room
- Being late
1. Your Emotional Attachment To A Nightmare Can Wake You Up
You know when you wake up frantically at 4 a.m. suddenly realising you’re not in a zombie apocalypse? Here’s why: Research has shown that a lot of dreaming occurs in the visual cortex, Breus says, which is linked to the amygdala, an emotional response centre. During a nightmare, both these get fired up and trigger autonomic arousal of the body.
According to professionals, your heart starts beating faster, breathing becomes laboured, and you can start sweating profusely from a nightmare which can cause you to wake up in a panic.
2. Nightmares Can Actually Make You Feel Better
Bad dreams are often a reflection of stress and worries you feel when awake, and when you dream, the brain takes these abstract fears and plays them out in a narrative. This is good news. Why? When you wake up, you remember the bad dream itself. Concrete memories are easier for our brains to process and file away than general, abstract anxieties — and we subconsciously think of them as the past, not the present. This helps us distance ourselves from the worry and provide an emotional release.
3. Some People Are More Prone To Nightmares Than Others
Depression, anxiety, and other psychiatric disorders are major risk factors for nightmares, says Breus. Sleep disorders such as insomnia or sleep apnea, are also associated with frequent nightmares. And since many sleep disorders are genetic, it’s possible that chronic and severe nightmares could run in your family.
According to research, gender may be a factor since young women report more nightmares than men. Children also report a higher frequency, but Pagel says that this is likely because they’re more terrifying to children, and the emotional response decreases over time.
Medications can also cause or worsen nightmares, including antihistamines, melatonin, antipsychotics, antidepressants, beta-blockers, and smoking cessation drugs.
4. It’s Possible To Be Diagnosed With A Nightmare Disorder
It’s classified in the DSM-5 under Sleep-Wake Disorders and includes repeatedly waking up to a fully alert state with detailed recall of extended and extremely frightening nightmares, and these disturbances cause clinically significant distress and impairment. The nightmares also aren’t caused by a specific mental or medical disorder or substances.
According to professionals, many people don’t know that nightmares can become abnormal to the point where it’s a legitimate disorder with treatment options. The real question isn’t how often you have nightmares, but how much do they disturb you. If you have chronic and severe nightmares, professionals suggest thinking about this and seeing a sleep specialist if they continue.
5. There Are Physical Benefits
During REM sleep (which is when most nightmares occur), blood flow decreases to the brain and redirects towards the muscles and other systems, allowing them to restore and recover.
Your growth and stress hormones, immune system, heart and blood pressure are all positively affected. So while it seems like the worst thing ever, staying asleep during a doozy of a bad dream could help your overall well being.
6. You Can Make Them Stop
In addition to limiting behaviours that cause nightmares, you can also shut them down once they’ve begun. Some medical professionals believe in a process called “lucid dreaming,” the process of becoming aware while still in a dream.
Once lucid, the dreamer can acknowledge that there is no real danger and attempt to create an alternate ending — like how to defeat an attacker, rescue their children, escape the sinking ship, etc. This particularly action is essentially controlling an individuals dream state.