Teeth falling out? Lost in the wilderness alone? Being chased but can't scream? Most of us can remember at least one such dream for its vividness, resulting visceral fear and lingering discomfort.
The mind's reel of midnight movies never ceases to amaze, and many of these dreams can be off-putting if not downright disturbing. From feeling all too real to playing on our deepest fears, bad dreams can also make it harder to get back to sleep and lead to bedtime anxiety for children as well as adults.
In the realm of dreams and nightmares, there remains more mystery than fact. It's an area of neuroscience and psychology that's hard to study, since each of us experiences a unique dream world that's inherently subjective and hard to document with reliability.
While a few hypotheses exist, little is confirmed about why we dream, what causes specific dreams, or how it all works. However, there are some interesting theories on nightmares and recent research that offers insight and potential ways to minimize their occurrence and impact. Read on to see what might influence dreams and current opinions on how to cope with the bad ones.
What Is a Nightmare?
Nightmares are defined as dreams that bring out strong feelings of fear, terror, distress or anxiety. They feel more vivid or intense than a bad dream, and nightmares are often differentiated from dreams when they cause the sleeper to actually wake up and experience intense feelings upon waking. People who awake during a nightmare are likely to remember the details of it.
While you are snoozing, your brain is pretty busy during certain times of the night. During Rapid Eye Movement sleep, brain waves exhibit activity fairly similar to waking, and your brain is consuming as much if not more energy than when you're awake.
Your eyes move rapidly (hence the name), but your muscles are in a state of paralysis. This temporary paralysis is a good thing, because during REM sleep your brain is still firing off commands in the motor cortex as you move around your dream world.
Nightmares typically occur during the REM phases of rest, showing up in the later half of your sleep. Little is known about why we dream in general, but popular theories range from managing subconscious thoughts, to sorting out memories and learned information, to purely random chemical signals.
There also isn't much information on exactly why dreams sometimes turn out to be nightmares, but it's believed that some daytime factors can play an influential role.
Both children and adults experience nightmares and bad dreams, even though they are primarily associated with childhood. It's estimated that 10-50 percent of 3- to 6-year-olds experience nightmares that affect their sleep, with over 80 percent of 7- to 9-year-olds occasionally experiencing bad dreams.
While children and teens may have more frequent nightmares, adults can and do still have them as well. A literature review found that 85 percent of adults report at least one nightmare the previous year, 8-29 percent have monthly nightmares, and 2-6 percent report weekly nightmares. Older adults are 20-50 percent less likely to have nightmares compared to younger adults.
Behind the Scenes: The Factors That Influence Dream Content
What was your last bad dream about? Despite our unique lives and experiences, if you asked a group of people this question, you'd likely see a few common themes. In fact, research shows we tend to share quite a bit of subject matter in nightmares.
A 2014 University of Montreal study, analyzed 253 nightmares and 431 bad dreams. They found that physical aggression was the most prevalent theme in nightmares, along with death, health and threats.
Men's nightmares were more likely to involve themes of natural disasters and war, while women showed higher frequency of interpersonal conflicts. While fear was a common emotion evoked by nightmares, a significant portion caused sadness, confusion, fear or disgust as well.
Similar themes were found in a previous German study, which identified the five most common nightmare themes as falling, being chased, being paralyzed, being late and death of family or friends.
There's no direct proof or consensus to exactly what causes nightmares or why we have them, but things like our relationships, daytime activities, certain medications and traumatic events all have important links.
For most people, dreams tend to incorporate aspects of our waking lives in both literal and abstract ways. For example, you dreams may include things like studying, test taking, a problem you're dealing with, working, family or a repetitive action you do during the day. Negative things like stress, fear, worry, arguments and other aspects of our days could also show up in nightmares.
The most common timeframes for dreams to incorporate episodic events and experiences is after one to two days or five to seven days. Dreams also commonly involve past autobiographical experiences, our personal experiences and long-term memories of the self. Research shows these memories are typically experienced selectively and in a fragmented fashion
Anxiety and Stress
Stress and anxiety can come in many forms, from temporary everyday things like moving to a new place, changing roles at school or work, or failing at a task, to more major things like divorce, losing a family member, trauma, or anxiety disorders. Being stressed and feeling anxiety is associated with poor sleep in general, and both may also trigger a nightmare.
Anxiety regarding performance is one a common theme you may have recognized in your own dreams. For example, about 15 percent of German athletes in one study reported distressing dreams before a big event, most often involving athletic failure. Many students also experience bad dreams related to impending tests or finals, sometimes even years after they've finished school.
The idea that scary movies, thrilling or suspenseful shows or even fear-inducing news broadcasts cause bad dreams is often expressed anecdotally. While difficult to study, many of us can recall a time where visual imagery and situations from media popped up in dream content. Scary movies can also cause stress and anxiety for some people (setting the stage for distressing dreams).
An older study of college students found that 90 percent could recall a frightening TV, movies or other media experience, and half said it had affected their sleep or eating habits in childhood or adolescence. More surprising is that about one-fourth of the students said they still experienced some residual anxiety. Blood, injury, disturbing sounds, and distorted images were the most prevalent types of phobia-inducing stimuli the researchers identified.
Severe depression and a negative self attitude were associated with higher incidence of nightmares in a recent large Finnish study. Depression actually proved to be the strongest predictor in their research, with 28 percent of sufferers reporting frequent nightmares compared to the sample average of 4 percent.
One study found adults with personality traits like distrustfulness, alienation, and emotional estrangement were more likely to experience chronic nightmares. Long-time dream researcher Ernest Hartmann proposes that people who have thinner personality boundaries and higher creativity may be more susceptible to nightmares.
Another interesting association is political ideology. A study of college students found that the conservative participants reported more nightmares and more fearful content than liberals, while the liberals recalled more dreams overall.
Sleep research has documented that temperature and comfort can affect sleep quality, and environment may have some impact on dream content as well. Temperatures that are too cold or too hot can lead less restful sleep and more awakenings (meaning more remembered dreams), as can pain.
Scent may also play a role. A German study released the scent of rotten eggs or roses into the rooms of sleepers after they entered REM sleep. Upon being awakened, people smelling roses reported more positive dream content while those smelling rotten eggs reported more negative content.
Photo from Flickr user AIM Neutron
Recurring or more frequent nightmares have been linked with traumatic experiences, including events like relationship violence and surviving natural disasters, and it's a defining characteristic of posttraumatic stress disorder.
Those with PTSD experience nightmares much more frequently, with research estimating 52 percent to 96 perent experience them often, compared to around 3 percent of the general population. The National Center for PTSD says that nightmares following trauma tend to incorporate similar elements or themes as well as replays of the event.
Medications and Drugs
Certain types of medications, particularly those that influence neurotransmitters may influence nightmare frequency. These include antidepressants, narcotics, and barbiturates, as well as withdraw from other drugs that affect REM sleep. If nightmares start after medication changes, bring it up with your physician.
According to the National Institutes of Health's Medline website, nightmares may also be associated with alcohol consumption and withdraw or recreational drug use and cessation.
Eating Before Bed
Snacking too close to bed can cause indigestion, and it may also influence your metabolism and dreams. One study linked junk food with nightmares, while another found that a spicy meal close to bed disturbs sleep, as summarized in a Lifehacker article.
Other Influential Factors
- Sleep Deprivation: Experiencing insomnia and fatigue also increase the chances of frequent nightmares, according to the previously mentioned Finnish study.
- Pain: One study showed 39 percent of people suffering from burn pain experienced pain in their dreams, which was associated with more nightmares and more intense daytime pain.
Minimizing Nightmares and Brushing Off Bad Dreams
Controlling nightmares remains largely uncharted territory, though there are few different schools of thought when it comes to managing bad dreams. For many people nightmares aren't really a major nuisance, but if they do wake you up more than you'd like or you have trouble settling down afterwards, here are couple of potential ways to go about preventing them or reducing their severity.
Practice Good Sleep Hygiene
It's not always possible to completely prevent bad dreams, but setting the stage for good sleep can help ensure you snooze more soundly and feel better-rested. Sleep hygiene involves ensuring both your habits and sleep environment are ideal for quality rest.
Your sleep space can have some bearing on your resting state. Ideally, bedrooms should be cool, dark and quiet. Temperatures in the 60s to low 70s are considered best. Remove or turn off light sources like TVs, VCRs, and alarm clocks, and consider light blocking shades if you live in an urban area or sleep past sunrise. White noise machines or earplugs can be helpful for drowning out bothersome noise.
In terms of habits, keeping a regular bedtime and waketime throughout the week is a key part of supporting your internal clock, as is daily moderate exercise, daily sunlight exposure and a regular evening relaxation routine.
Caffeine, alcohol and nicotine can all affect sleep in different ways, and are best avoided the hours before bedtime. Keeping bedtime snacks light and avoiding spicy foods or those that cause indigestion is also recommended.
Talk or Write It Out
Photo from Flickr user Vassilis Online
Some psychologists believe talking about dreams and getting social support to put them in perspective is key to reducing anxiety following nightmares. This might take the form of talking out dreams with a therapist, discussing them with a partner or in a group setting, or via independent journaling.
If you wake up shaken from a nightmare and can't get back to sleep right away, it could be helpful to get out of bed and write the dream down, and even change its course.
Image Rehearsal Therapy is a type of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy that involves recalling the nightmare and then writing out a new, more positive version and rehearsing this new scenario daily to displace the original nightmare theme. IRT is a well-researched type of therapy, and is a treatment recommended by the American Academy of Sleep Medicine for chronic idiopathic nightmares and PTSD-related nightmares.
Deal with Daytime Stressors
Other approaches can focus on routines or working on areas of your life that could be contributing to stress or fear. The American Psychological Association's 2013 Stress in America poll found that stress was associated with poorer sleep, and that poorer sleep was also associated with higher stress
When you've had a tough day, take a few minutes to de-stress before bed. Try a warm bath, relaxing music, yoga or other techniques to see what helps you most.
Progressive Muscle Relaxation is another method recommended by AASM for nightmares. It involves gradually tensing and relaxing different groups of muscles all over the body to reduce stress and tension. It can be done in a clinical setting, or at home via a guided audio track.
Avoid watching or reading things comprised of common nightmare fodder close to bed. That scary movie, suspenseful book or unsettling news broadcast could wind up in your midnight playlist.
Better choices for winding down if you are looking for more peaceful sleep are lighthearted shows, calming music, coloring/sketching, or neutral reading on subjects like self-improvement or hobbies. Remember, electronics like TVs and tablets steal sleep, so it's best to turn them off at least 30 minutes before bed.
Play Some Video Games
One study of former American and Canadian male soldiers without PTSD found that those who played video games often had less threatening dreams and were less passive in their dreams. Researchers speculate that process of desensitization, fighting and winning associated with video gaming may carry over to the dream world.
However, a follow up study found that these protections may not extend to women. Researchers looked at a group of college students that previously experienced trauma and related dreams.
While male high-level gamers who had experienced trauma were less affected by nightmares, female high-level gamers actually had the most difficulty with nightmares. They speculate that the genres of games, whether they are played socially, and whether the player experiences sex-role conflict also factor into gaming's ability to provide nightmare protection.
Get Help If Needed
Sometimes, nightmares can become more than just occasional disruptions, becoming a significant source of sleep anxiety. Nightmare disorder is a clinically recognized sleep disorder, classified by frequent and persistent nightmares that regularly disrupt sleep, cause bedtime anxiety and affect daytime behavior. They can also be a symptom of PTSD, which can have a dramatic effect on quality of life.
If you feel like nightmares are making it difficult to get a good night's sleep often or feel anxiety around falling asleep due to bad dreams, it is worthwhile to discuss it with your doctor and/or a psychologist. They can assess if there are underlying conditions to resolve and prescribe the right treatments and medications when applicable.
Most importantly, don't feel embarrassed to bring the issue up -- nightmares aren't childish. They can have a significant impact on your waking life, and social support along with healthy lifestyle habits can play an important role in minimizing their impact.
This article originally appeared on the Amerisleep blog.
Rosie Osmun is the Creative Content Manager at Amerisleep, a progressive memory foam mattress brand focused on eco-friendly sleep solutions. Rosie writes more posts on the Amerisleep blog about the science of sleep, eco-friendly living, leading a healthy lifestyle and more.
Follow Rosie Osmun on Twitter: www.twitter.com/rosieosmun
Waking nightmares: Heart pounding. Frozen with fear. Unable to even scream. The little-known condition millions are suffering from
By Alison Smith-squire
Published: 23:35 GMT, 30 July 2012 | Updated: 23:35 GMT, 30 July 2012
Lying in her bed in the middle of the night, Elizabeth Earle woke with a start to see a menacing dark shadow in the corner of her room.
Heart pounding in her ears, she tried to scream.
But when she tried to open her mouth, it was impossible.
'Some nights I was going through eight hours of hell. And often the next day I was shattered because I'd been unable to sleep,' said Elizabeth Earle
She was unable to utter a sound — in fact, to her horror she found herself paralysed and unable to move.
Finally after what seemed an eternity, but was probably no more than a few minutes, she found herself able to move again.
When she looked, the menacing dark shadow had disappeared.
This is a typical example of the constant nightmares that have haunted Elizabeth, a teaching assistant from Nuneaton, Warwickshire, for the past decade.
‘Afterwards I often have to get up, put the light on and walk round to calm myself down,’ says Elizabeth, 23.
‘But even then I am often too frightened to go back to sleep.
‘In fact, sometimes I have to wait until the sun comes up.
'It’s only then, with daylight seeping through the curtains, that I feel safe enough to doze off.’
Sleep paralysis is generally a night-time phenomenon
Elizabeth is one of millions who suffer from a terrifying sleep disorder called sleep paralysis, which causes you to partially wake up during a dream, while your body is still ‘asleep’.
It’s also dubbed Old Hag syndrome — because, according to folklore, an old hag would sit on a sleeper’s chest, causing shortness of breath and an inability to move, sending nightmares to him or her.
It is estimated up to 60 per cent of us will experience sleep paralysis at least once, with 5 per cent suffering from repeated episodes, often nightly, for six months or even longer.
Not only is the condition extremely disturbing, it can rob people of their sleep, causing exhaustion and concentration problems.
‘Sleep paralysis occurs during rapid eye movement (REM) sleep or dream sleep,’ says sleep expert Dr Neil Stanley.
During a period of REM sleep, which lasts for around five to 15 minutes and is repeated roughly every 90 minutes throughout the night, the brain turns off most of the body’s muscle function, temporarily paralysing you so you cannot act out a dream, he explains.
‘In sleep paralysis, the person wakes up but the transition between sleep and waking up fully isn’t as smooth as it should be.
'They begin to wake up and may sometimes even be able to partially open their eyes, but find themselves unable to move.
'At the same time they are still dreaming.
‘The paralysis only lasts for a few seconds or minutes but can be terrifying because the victim may experience vivid hallucinations.’
Adrian Williams, professor of sleep medicine and consultant at the London Sleep Centre and Guys and St Thomas’ Hospital, adds: ‘As the person has partially woken up the hallucinations can feel very real.
'They often involve hearing, or seeing ghosts or other menacing figures.
‘Some sufferers even feel they are being touched, sat on, or pulled off the bed.’
Many sufferers believe they are being haunted or that the dreams are a premonition that something bad such as a death is about to strike.
‘Although they are a completely normal phenomenon, they can cause the sufferer lots of worry,’ says Professor Williams.
‘In fact, sufferers often don’t tell people due to fears they will be ridiculed.
'But the condition can have a huge impact on sleep and lead to insomnia and tiredness.’
Sleep paralysis is generally a night-time phenomenon, and not something people suffer during an afternoon nap, for example, because you must be asleep for at least 70 to 120 minutes first to get into REM sleep.
Anything that disrupts the sleep pattern can result in an episode — including stress, shift work, jet lag and some medications, illnesses and even too much alcohol or caffeine.
Not only sleep paralysis extremely disturbing, it can rob people of their sleep, causing exhaustion and concentration problems
‘Even your partner snoring next to you can precipitate an attack if your REM sleep is interrupted and you wake up during dream sleep,’ says Dr Stanley. However, they can also appear to strike out of the blue and attack at any age.
In those who suffer frequent episodes of sleep paralysis, it’s thought there may be an inherited tendency, as the condition tends to run in families.
Elizabeth is not aware of any sleep paralysis in her family, and believes for her it was sparked by a family tragedy in November 2000 which severely affected her sleep.
‘I had my first attack when I was 11, following the death of my cousin Jonathon,’ she says.
‘The day before his 18th birthday party, he and four other friends were killed in a car crash.
'We were incredibly close and it had a huge impact on the whole family.’
She immediately started to suffer nightmares about Jonathon
‘At first they were just disturbing dreams. But as I got into my teens they got worse,’ she recalls.
‘I felt as though there were dark forces waiting for me as I slept.’
By the time Elizabeth went to university, she was experiencing a sleep paralysis episode virtually every night.
‘I would try desperately to scream so someone in the next room would come running to help me, but I couldn’t move.
'Eventually, the nightmare would break. The paralysis would immediately stop and I’d be properly wide awake although gasping for breath and gripped with fear.
She adds: ‘It was a terrible time — when I confided in people they would say it was just a dream.
'But some nights I was going through eight hours of hell. And often the next day I was shattered because I’d been unable to sleep.
'One time when I was 20 and had come home from university, I had such a terrifying experience I begged my mum to sleep in my room with me.’
Elizabeth even started to worry she was going mad.
She visited her GP, who diagnosed sleep paralysis and reassured her the episodes, although frightening, were nothing serious.
‘It was a relief to find it had a proper name and was a recognised sleep disorder.’
But as the nightmares continued, she even tried counselling, believing that talking about her cousin’s death might help the nightmares go away.
Although it didn’t help, the therapist suggested healthy sleeping tips such as avoiding stress and not drinking caffeine too close to bedtime.
Elizabeth also started to research the condition online and taught herself breathing techniques to cope when paralysis strikes.
‘I have learned not to panic,’ she says.
‘Instead I concentrate on breathing steadily and telling myself it isn’t real.
Keeping my breathing steady definitely seems to help bring the nightmare to an end much quicker. And now I only have them once a fortnight.’
Professor Williams adds that because it is a sleep disorder, counselling doesn’t usually help with sleep paralysis, although it helps to manage stress.
It’s also important to eat healthily, take regular exercise and avoid alcohol and stimulants such as caffeine before bed.
Partners can help, too, he adds. ‘You may be able to attract your partner’s attention to tell them you’re having a night terror by blinking or breathing quickly.
'Some people find if their partner touches them that will immediately bring them out of the episode.’
It is also worth seeing your GP. ‘If sleep paralysis is having a big impact on someone’s life, antidepressants can be prescribed that will suppress the REM sleep and therefore reduce the number of episodes,’ says Professor Williams.
These can be taken long-term, but side-effects must be taken into consideration and it depends on the patient’s history whether the treatment is appropriate, he adds.
Elizabeth, who has written a novel, Tartarus, due to be published in August, found that knowing there was nothing wrong with her went a long way in reducing her attacks.
‘I created a heroine, to battle the demons, and living out those fears in my novel was incredibly cathartic,’ she says.
‘Knowledge is power. While they might never go away completely, I no longer worry about sleeping at night.
'For me, facing up to my demons has been my cure.’
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