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More Than Just a Dream: The Science Behind Nightmares

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to share a dream with someone or jump into someone else’s dream? I think about this when I’m lying awake at night wondering if I’m the only crazy person who has dreams that play out like a Nightmare on Elm Street movie. I’d love the option to hop into a Pride and Prejudice-type dream, wearing one of those elegant dresses and dancing with an awkwardly handsome stud like Mr. Darcy.

So why can’t all dreams be happy fantasies? Why do people have nightmares?

According to research, nightmares serve a positive purpose. They are the brain’s way of highlighting psychological issues people need to face.

“Dreams are the royal road to the unconscious.”
—Sigmund Freud, The Interpretation of Dreams 

Some scientists theorize that if nightmares didn’t aid in our survival, they would have been eliminated by evolution.

While “bad dreams” are scientifically proven to help us, they can also lead to sleep deprivation and other negative side effects if they occur too often.

For those seeking a solution to their night terrors, the first step is to learn what causes nightmares. Here are a few triggers:

  1. Late-night snacks. Eating late at night increases your metabolism and causes more activity in the brain.
  1. Taking antidepressants or narcotics right before bed. These types of drugs cause chemical reactions in the brain often associated with nightmares. It’s also important to note that certain non-psychological medications, such as blood pressure medications, also contribute to the frequency of nightmares.
  1. Anxiety and/or depression. Studies show that there is a strong connection between nightmare frequency and mental and physical health. Essentially, nightmares serve as a barometer of a person’s psychological wellbeing—so if you are often anxious in your waking life, you are more likely to carry that pattern while you sleep.

For more information on why we have nightmares and nightmare meanings, check out this video from dream interpreter Lauri Loewenberg.

Treatment for nightmares is not a one-size-fits-all approach—but as soon as you can identify the cause of your nightmare you will be one step closer to finding a cure that works for you. Here are four approaches scientifically-proven to be effective:

Pay attention to obsessive, catastrophic thoughts 

Do you find yourself dwelling on what’s wrong in your life and worrying to the extreme? It’s natural to worry, but when it becomes all consuming, that’s when you need to take a step back and put things in perspective. Chances are what you are worrying about will either a) never happen or b) you won’t care about it a year from now.

Practice gratitude at bedtime

The minute you lay your head on the pillow, start focusing on the positive moments that happened throughout the day. Even if it was one of those black-cloud, bad-luck kind of days, do your best to find something good. We all can find something to be grateful for, even if it’s as small as a smile from a stranger or a yummy latte in the morning.

Don’t assume the worst when you have a bad dream.

You are not psychic and your nightmares do not predict the future. Worrying that your nightmares indicate some sort of impending doom will only escalate your negative thinking.

Use lucid dreaming to confront your fears

Lucid dreaming is being aware you are in a dream, and as soon as you realize what you are experiencing isn’t real, it becomes less scary and you can face what you are afraid of.

Whether you are being chased by a killer clown (in my case), swimming away from a shark, or standing in front of a room in your underwear, you can use lucid dreaming to control the outcome of your nightmare and, over time, the nightmares will stop. When you finally face the clown, shark or whatever your fear is, you will have psychologically conquered that fear.

And when all else fails, sleep with a night light.

More Than Just a Dream: The Science Behind Nightmares

Kaitlin Vogel

From covering health and wellness content to neuroscience to relationships and dating advice, I’m committed to creating content that matters. My goal is for readers to walk away feeling empowered and motivated – whether it’s to pursue their dream job, strengthen the connection with their partner, or follow mindfulness strategies to relieve stress and anxiety.


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APA Reference
Vogel, K. (2018). More Than Just a Dream: The Science Behind Nightmares. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 22, 2018, from https://blogs.psychcentral.com/change-your-mind/2018/09/more-than-a-dream-the-science-behind-nightmares/

 

Last updated: 17 Sep 2018
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 17 Sep 2018
Published on PsychCentral.com. All rights reserved.