There is probably no worse shared human experience than the feeling of waking up out of a nightmare. You might wake up disoriented and terrified, feeling your physical body respond to threats that aren’t there, unsure of where you are or what’s real. Sound familiar? Most adults experience nightmares at some point in their lives, whether they’re triggered by something external or by something we’re processing in our subconscious. Nightmares can affect children, too — and it can be almost as much of a scary experience for a parent to watch their child go through it alone and not know what to do.
We might not be able to prevent nightmares completely, but there are steps we can take to help keep them at bay and understand what our minds are trying to teach us. Let’s look at what nightmares are, what causes them, and how we can tame them to improve the quality of our sleep.
What are nightmares?
Nightmares are defined as vivid, disturbing dreams that cause terror or heightened anxiety while you’re asleep. They often feel like something we have no control over and give us an overwhelming sensation of disoriented helplessness. Nightmares can be a melange of things you’ve seen or heard throughout the day, as well as underlying anxieties and worries that your subconscious mind is trying to process.
During the night, our bodies go through several phases of sleep. It’s during the more cerebrally active REM (rapid eye movement) sleep phase that we tend to dream more vividly. These REM phases get increasingly longer towards the end of the night, which is why our most intense nightmares seem to happen closer to the morning.
When nightmares recur continuously and begin to affect your mood, quality of sleep, and overall well-being it is called “nightmare disorder”, a type of broader sleep disorder called “parasomnia”.
What causes nightmares?
Nightmares are more common in children than in adults, and more common in women of all ages than in men. Folklorically, it was once believed that nightmares were the result of demonic influence or a portent of things to come. History is rife with spells, charms, and amulets designed to keep these night terrors at bay — some of which were quite effective, suggesting the calming effect of these comforting rituals.
Today, scientists are still debating the root cause of nightmares. Some believe that nightmares developed as an evolutionary way for us to build an awareness of dangers in our environment — a mechanism which is no longer as useful for us today as it once was. Others think that nightmares are our brains’ way of reacting to and dealing with underlying trauma. To a certain point, this can be useful in helping our subconscious minds process things we might not know how to deal with in our waking life. When it becomes constant and damaging to our health, however, they do us more harm than good.
Do nightmares only happen at night?
As we saw above, nightmares are most common during REM sleep. REM sleep cycles happen more often in the longer, deeper sleep you have at night (compared to shorter naps taken during the day — these short bursts are mostly non-rapid eye movement sleep, or NREM). For this reason, true nightmares mostly only happen at night.
During stressful waking times, however, it’s relatively common for people to fall into intense negative daydreams and fantasies. If we follow these too far they can start to feel more and more real — these are sometimes called “daymares”. Most of the time our brains are pretty good at differentiating between the imaginary and reality, but sometimes, especially if we’re fighting off an illness, these daytime fantasies can slip into hallucinations. These vivid, illness-fueled dreams are called “fever dreams” <link to fever dreams article> and they can happen both while you’re asleep and while you’re awake.
How do nightmares affect our health?
Are nightmares truly bad for you? There are divided opinions. It’s been suggested that there are a few benefits to having bad dreams at night, including:
They help you deal with suppressed emotions
The theory that dreams are the arena of suppressed desires, originally put forth by Sigmund Freud, may have come from a seed of truth. When we dream, our brains often process the experiences and feelings of our waking life that, for whatever reason, we haven’t been able to otherwise.
When we’re actively afraid of something, our dreams give us a safe place to play them out. This can be a terrifying experience, but it can actually provide a sense of catharsis when we wake up. Once we’re awake and see that those fears only happened in dreamtime, it helps to put some distance between us and those underlying worries. They can also give us some insight into our subconscious minds and some clarity on how to deal with those fears in real life.
They work as a subconscious exposure therapy
If you’re not familiar with the term, “exposure therapy” is the practice of spending time with the things you’re afraid of in a safe, controlled environment. For example, if someone has a debilitating fear of spiders they might spend time with a councilor and a contained spider, before moving towards physical contact with the spider as their comfort level increases. The idea behind exposure therapy is that you desensitize yourself to the things that terrify you and slowly come to appreciate that they might not have been as scary as you thought.
Nightmares — in particular recurring nightmares — do this on a subconscious level. They can be more difficult to deal with that regular exposure therapy because you aren’t dealing with your fears in the same controlled environment; however, the repeated exposure to the things you are afraid of can make them seem less scary in the light of day.
It’s important to note that this system is dependent on a number of factors including the types of fears, the quality of sleep, and the way your brain is processing those fears. Nightmares bring positive long-term results for some people, but they don’t work the same way for everyone.
They offer threat training in a safe space
Many researchers believe that we originally began having nightmares as a way to train ourselves against potential hazards in our waking world. For instance, if you heard that someone from the tribe over the hill was killed by a vicious saber tooth tiger and then had a nightmare about it happening to you, it’s thought that that was your brain’s way of preparing for the possibility that you might face the same threat yourself. Your dream gave you a place to look for solutions to the problems you could be up against until you found the best way to deal with them. It’s been suggested that this same mechanism is what causes us to have bad dreams about current events and horror movies that we see before we go to sleep.
While we’re not facing the same kind of environmental threats today as we were in our ancestors’ time, our brain still uses our sleep time to prepare us for hazards that we might have to deal with while we’re awake. This can be useful when we come up against unexpected threats in our waking life.
How can we stop and prevent nightmares?
For the most part, however, nightmares are severely uncomfortable and rarely the best way to deal with these issues. When nightmares come as a result of extreme trauma, we can find ourselves locked into a terrifying cycle with no real benefit. They can also have a huge negative effect on the quality of our sleep, causing us to lose many of the benefits of a healthy sleep cycle and even actively avoid sleep to keep our night terrors at bay. In these instances it’s best to try and find healthier ways to deal with our suppressed anxieties and support our bodies with a better sleep.
Here are a few things you can do to help keep your nightmares away:
Avoid triggering content before bed
Some nightmare triggers are more obvious, like scary stories and films. If you’re a big horror fan, try to limit them to later afternoon so that you give yourself a cool-down period before you go to sleep.
Other triggers might be less obvious, and they depend on what your dreams are trying to communicate with you. Think about what sort of habits you have right before you go to bed. For example, if you’re in a rut of checking your ex’s social media right before bed, it’s probably spiking your anxiety levels and feeding into unresolved traumas that your brain tries to make sense of once you’re asleep. It’s not easy at first, but make an effort to listen to your subconscious mind and how it’s reacting to the stimuli around you.
Engage in relaxation techniques before you sleep
Going to bed amped up on stress isn’t a conducive way to get a good night’s sleep. If you’re worrying about nightmares before you even get into bed, it’s going to make your anxiety even worse. See if you can take steps to get into a more relaxed state before you sleep. Doing breathing exercises and meditations can help relax your body and your mind, making it easier to stay calm as you fall asleep. You can also have a warm bath or snuggle up with a comforting book to lower your stress levels and get you into a healthier state of mind before getting into bed.
Keep an active lifestyle
Contrary to what we might think, it can be difficult for us to get a good night’s sleep after a lazy, lethargic day. Our brains become restless and sluggish, which leads to further anxiety and erratic dreams. See if you can work some exercise into your day, such as a morning workout or a walk around the neighborhood in the evening. Giving your body the chance to tire itself out will not only benefit you physically, but it will lead to a deeper, more restful sleep.
Writing down your dreams and your thoughts around them can be a great way to understand what your subconscious mind is trying to communicate. Sometimes the underlying anxieties, uncertainties, or traumas that our brains are working to process only become clear when we look at them from a new perspective.
In addition to helping us understand our minds better, journaling can help us train our brains to approach our dreams in a different way. When you write down your nightmares, try also writing down ways you could visit your dream in a more positive way. For example, if your dreams are about being chased by a hidden figure, you could write about how you find your way to a safe place, or how you turn and fight off the attacked easily, or how you reveal them to be something or someone not very scary at all. If you write down these things every time you have a nightmare, you’ll teach your mind to reroute the direction of the story and give you a happy ending.
Use suggestive tools
There’s something to be said for embracing the charms and beliefs of those who have gone before us, whether they’re from your own culture or elsewhere. In Guatemala, children were given petite “worry dolls”, often handmade, to whisper their worries to before they went to sleep. It was believed that the worry dolls would keep the worries safe during the night so the children could sleep peacefully.
In several aboriginal tribes of North America, it was believed that hanging a dream catcher above the bed would catch bad dreams in the intricate webbing. Good dreams, and dreams that served an important purpose, would pass safely through the web and down the hanging feathers into the sleeper’s head.
You don’t have to believe in the folk myths behind these sleep aids and others like them (though you certainly can!), but you might find that having a personal charm or amulet helps center your mind and give you a feeling of safety and security as you drift off to sleep.
Nightmares are a normal part of our sleeping lives and, though unpleasant, rarely do us any real harm. Sometimes they might even help our brains process ideas that we don’t know how to otherwise. When they get to be too difficult, however, these ideas should help you deal with those anxieties in a healthier way and settle into a safe, comfortable sleep.