Nightmares are horrible! We can’t seem to control them and they tend to happen to everybody. However, did you know that there is actually a science behind nightmares and that there are a few things you can do in order to stop them from happening again?
What Is a Nightmare?
A nightmare is a dream that is frightening rather than pleasant. Scientists have proven that around 75% of all dreams have some form of negative emotion attached to them, which is far higher than most people realize. However, it seems that our brain can make these negative emotions into something we can cope with, until we stumble across a disturbing, dark nightmare from which we wake up in a bed of sweat.
Nightmares usually are a series of images, emotions, ideas and feelings that happen at the same time during our sleep. During a bad dream, we see a range of emotions, including depression, sadness, guilt, anger, anxiety and fear. The images are often incredibly realistic, including terrifying and disturbing pictures, which wake us up. The feeling afterwards often lingers, which makes it difficult to return to sleep.
The Content of Nightmares
The actual content varies from one person to another, although certain themes seem to come back regularly. For instance, many people have chasing dreams, where they simply aren’t fast enough. Falling dreams and revisiting frightening events are also very common. In children, nightmares usually revolve around monsters chasing them.
A nightmare can last anything from a few minutes up to about 20 minutes. As the night progresses, our REM stage becomes longer, which is why most nightmares happen early in the morning.
The Clinical Issue
Nightmares happen to everybody, although most commonly in children. Between the age of three and eight, nightmare frequency tends to peak. Only some 7% of adults have nightmares once a month or more. Also, do not confuse nightmares and night terrors, which happen as we fall asleep and which are generally only based on feelings, not images and ideas.
The Causes of Nightmares
So what causes bad dreams? Many scientists believe that dreams – and nightmares – are believed to have no purpose at all. However, others believe that they are an evolutionary development. They simulate threats that help us prepare for real life emergencies. This is a biological development, as we are no longer exposed to the dangers our ancestors were. As such, a nightmare is like a rehearsal. Those who dream, although exposed to fictional situations, are more experienced than those who don’t dream and are better equipped to deal with real life problems.
We also know that there is a genetic link in having bad dreams, with them being more prominent in certain families than in others. The mechanics, however, are not understood. We do understand that they can be triggered by a range of different factors. For instance, those who are ill or who have a fever tend to experience more nightmares. When withdrawing from drugs, taking certain antidepressants, some types of nicotine replacement therapy and some other types of medication can also create more nightmares. Another truth is that if you sleep straight after eating, you have more chance of having a nightmare, because your metabolism is higher.
Other factors include sleep disorders and the daily stresses of life. Most people have more nightmares if they are going through periods of stress, such as moving, changing jobs, pregnancies or financial troubles. Serious events, such as bereavements or traumatic events are also of influence. Lastly, people with PTSD – post traumatic stress disorder – have significantly more nightmares than others.
Treatment for Nightmares
Because nightmares are not common, they generally do not cause a problem. Most of us are able to simply move on. However, there are people with whom nightmares are so frequent that they start to pose a health risk. This is because it can lead to serious anxiety and depression, as well as sleep deprivation. For these people, it is important to seek medical advice. For these people, learning how to prevent nightmares is very important.
Imagery rehearsal treatment is a popular form of treatment for a bad dream, where people learn how to change the outcome of their dream during their waking hours. It is a type of cognitive behavior therapy, allowing people to change outcomes. Some 70% of people find this treatment beneficial.
Another technique is to write down the nightmare, painting it or drawing it. They should talk to the characters in their dreams and resolve the issues they faced within that fantasy. Again, it is about creating a more pleasant ending.
If all else fails, medication can help. Prazosin is the most common type to ward of bad dreams, generally used in people with PTSD. This also treats panic disorders, high blood pressure and anxiety.
Last but not least, remember common sense to stop bad dreams. Use relaxation techniques (deep breathing, yoga, meditation), exercise and go to bed stress free in a relaxing environment. Do not eat, drink alcohol or smoke before going to sleep.