How To Understand Your Nightmares
The origins of nightmares
Most of us will remember at least one vivid nightmare we've had - leaving you sweating, heart pounding, breathless. We were relieved to know that it was just a dream For some people however, even waking up gives no relief. The nightmare was so frightening that it leaves them convinced that it's an omen of something bad. The question remains then - what are nightmares and why do we experience them?
The Oxford Dictionary describes nightmares as:
- "A frightening or unpleasant dream".
They go onto describe that the origin of the word has nothing to do with 'mare' as in horses. In old Middle English a 'mare' was a form of female evil spirit or demon who was believed to try to suffocate people by lying on top of them while they slept. Another name for this spirit was 'Incubus'. Today people do experience this phenomena and it's often called the 'night hag' to explain these terrifying episodes. Medically it's called 'sleep paralysis'. However, regardless of what you want to call it, this is a distressing and frightening experience to have. Naturally, scientists attribute 'sleep paralysis' to brain activity. However, not everyone agrees that it's simply the brain causing these effects, but this would need to be covered in another hub.
In addition, although children do tend to experience nightmares the most, adults also have their fair share of these disturbing episodes. There are many factors that influence whether or not we may have a nightmare and looking at this in a little more depth might help us to understand these dreams more.
Interesting Dream Facts
1. Approximately 20-25% of our sleep is made up of dreaming. For most of us this means we dream for about 2 hours everynight.
2. Everybody dreams without exception. Some people think they don't because they don't have recall about them, but they dream like everyone else.
3. The most common kinds of dreams are about being in school, falling and being chased.
The stuff of nightmares
Basically a nightmare is any kind of dream that is vivid and realistic in a very unpleasant way. Frequently you will be jolted awake from these dreams leaving you in a state of distress. Interestingly medical research articles such as those from the 'National Library of Medicine' USA, also talk about the category of 'bad dreams'. Research seems to indicate that bad dreams are simply a less intense version of a nightmare and people don't tend to be awakened suddenly by them. However, bad dreams can cause ongoing problems like nightmares, if they are experienced on a regular basis.
Nightmares tend to occur during the Rapid Eye Movement (REM) period of sleep. This is the most active period of our dream state. Nightmares are usually experienced during the early hours of the morning. This is due to the fact that REM becomes progressively longer during the night. It's common for adults to have nightmares once in a while. However, with some people nightmares happen frequently and are a source of dread for those suffering from them. In research carried out it was found that women tend to have more nightmares than men. However, researchers believe that this could be because women are better at dream recall than men and also find it easier to discuss them.
What do people have nightmares about?
What people dream about during nightmares differs from person to person. However, researchers have found common themes:
- Not being able to run fast enough from a perceived danger.
- Falling from a great height.
- People who have suffered a traumatic event often experience nightmares about their experiences.
There are more personalised subjects that people will dream about that are symbolic to them. I've asked a number of family members, friends and acquaintances to tell me about a nightmare that affected them particularly badly. The reports were very interesting and are listed below, but remember this was a small sample of people compared to official research surveys. The people I spoke to had nightmares about:
- dreaming about a stranger, foreigner or shadow that they are afraid of. On occasion these 'dream people' will chase or in some other way threaten them.
- In other dreams people had the feeling that someone was chasing them but there was no specific figure to be seen.
- A close friend of mine, when she was depressed, had frequent nightmares of being chased down her street by a werewolf. She would wake up terrified and often sweating to the point she had to go and have a shower.
- A couple of friends reported nightmares about being trapped in a building or other location and not being able to get out.
- I tend to have two particular nightmares that used to occur when I was going through a particular bad patch in my life. I would have nightmares about being followed by a T-rex dinosaur or a serial killer - pleasant or what! The funny thing was, that whenever I did dream of these particular things, I knew another problem was going to arise soon and it always did within a day or so.
Recurring bad dreams should only cause concern when they are having an impact on your sleep - either wakening you up or if you are afraid to go to sleep. Researchers feel that recurring dreams tend to be more significant than ordinary ones and usually point to an important aspect of a person's life.
Night terrors are not the same as having a nightmare and although they mostly happen to children, adults do report this experience as well. With night terrors people don't dream but wake up with a feeling of fear and anxiety. There are no dream images to recall to explain why the person has awoken feeling so afraid.
Interesting Dream Facts
1. Researchers who monitored people during sleep found that they could influence what the sleepers were dreaming about by introducing certain smells and odours. When sleepers were exposed to rotten egg smells, they dreamt mostly unpleasant dreams. However the sleepers who were exposed to the scent of roses reported only good dreams.
What causes nightmares?
The actual cause for the experience of a nightmare is still a mystery. Although what is known is that they are a product of the subconscious.
The subconscious will produce nightmares usually as a wake up call that there is something we need to deal with in life that has not as yet been resolved. The subconscious works in symbolic images only, therefore it can be difficult to grasp the significance of what your sub conscious is telling you. It's a case of looking at yourself and your life - especially the aspects that you dislike, avoid, fear or in any way put to the side, and aim to resolve them.
Other triggers for nightmares.
Although most adult nightmares happen spontaneously, there are a number of factors that could cause them. In some cases, there may be more than one trigger:
- Eating late at night - having food quite late on in the evening causes the metabolic rate of the body to increase and this causes the brain to be more active as well, leading to the possibility of nightmares.
- Medications - there are a number of medications that are known to trigger nightmares. The most common ones for having this affect are anti-depressants and some narcotics. However, research has shown that other medications such as those prescribed for high blood pressure can cause nightmares in some adults.
- Withdrawal - both medication and alcohol withdrawal can trigger off nightmares. With medications, often tranquilisers are one of the main culprits.
- Sleep deprivation - although some medical researchers are looking at the possibility of sleep deprivation cycles causing nightmares this has not been proven as yet.
- Psychological disorders - depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) often cause nightmares that are both recurrent and become chronic.
- Sleep disorders - these can trigger off nightmares especially conditions such as sleep apnoea and restless leg syndrome. However research is also looking into the possibility of recurring nightmares being a distinct sleep disorder in it's own right.
- Having irregular hours for sleep or not getting enough sleep is thought to increase the risk of nightmares.
- Genetic - the tendency to have nightmares can run in families.
Do you remember a nightmare that you consider was the most frightening and disturbing?
How to cope with a nightmare
The aftermath sensations on waking up from a nightmare can be just as distressing as the dream itself. Carrying out a few simple acts to get yourself calm and re-focused help to dispel anxiety and fear:
- Reassure yourself that you are safe physically and mentally. Switch a light on if this helps.
- Breathe slowly and deeply - on the exhalation relax your body as much as you can.
- Re-focus yourself into reality - look at the time, stand up, stamp your feet, take a drink of water, rinse your face. These will ground you back into waking mode.
- Focus on positive thoughts if you can rather than the imagery of the nightmare.
- If you need to relax further, read a book, do some more breathing techniques or whatever you feel will help, until you are ready to go back to sleep.
When nightmares occur on a regular basis then they can impact significantly on a person's mental and physical health. This is most likely to happen when there is already an underlying condition present such as:
- Anxiety disorders
- Untreated sleep apnoea - sleep apnoea/apnea is the slowing down or cessation of breathing during sleep.
- Post traumatic stress disorder
In addition nightmares can also cause conditions to arise such as sleep deprivation, which in turn increases the risks of developing heart disease,depression and obesity.
However you could also be experiencing nightmares due to the fact that you just need to change a few things with your life style such as:
- Diet and what times you eat. Diet and especially eating last thing at night has been known to cause nightmares. In addition, it is possible that some foods may be causing your nightmares so experiment a little and see what, if any, difference this makes.
- Ensure that you are getting enough, quality sleep and also that your bedding and mattress are comfortable.
- If you can, try talking through your nightmare with family or a good friend.
- A number of people have found keeping a sleep diary or journal was beneficial in being able to understand their nightmares and dreams and so alleviating the problem. There are a number of quality books, CD's and DVD's available to buy or to borrow from your library. There are many 'dream dictionaries' on the market, but they are very limited in their use as they are not geared to individual people, experiences or circumstances.
Remember though that nightmares are messages - very unpleasant ones - but it's your mind and body telling you that you need to work out something that you are either ignoring or maybe not yet aware of. If you feel that nightmares are affecting your daily life and ability to sleep properly then seek medical advice from your doctor who will be able to advise on the best course of action for you.