The nature of nightmares

By: Grace Helmke

Dreams can be a place of great comfort, but they can also be an incredible source of anxiety. Nightmares are a phenomenon that have wreaked havoc in the night for centuries. They have been the perpetrator of sleepless nights, anxious living, and declined mental health amongst individuals of all ages around the world. 

Sleep happens in cycles. Most dreams occur during a cycle known as REM (rapid eye movement) sleep. During this phase, your brain releases glycine which causes the body to become paralyzed. This is likely a natural way to ensure that we don’t act out our dreams in real life. Oftentimes, this causes even more anxiety within a nightmare. It sometimes causes restricted motion within dreams, and can lead to sleep paralysis upon waking up, or exiting the state of REM. 

According to the Harvard Medical school, a nightmare was defined as a “Disease when a man in his sleep supposes he has a great weight laying upon him,” in the late 1700s. Although this definition doesn’t necessarily come up today, nightmares are still considered dreams which result in “Feelings of terror, fear, distress, or anxiety”.

Some researchers say that people are working through difficult moments in a day, or traumatic experiences in life. It can get to the point of dysfunction. If the individual has frequent nightmares, they may be suffering from “nightmare disorder”, formerly “dream anxiety disorder”. 

Dreams are defined as recent autobiographical episodes that are woven with past memories. Nightmares are simply dreams that produce a negative response. They are often confused with night terrors, which are fearful reactions that occur during transitions between phases of sleep. Usually, they occur when non-REM (non rapid eye movement) sleep transitions to REM (rapid eye movement) sleep.

Nightmares are generally caused by anxiety, stress, mental health disorders, irregular sleep, and medication. But possibly the most common cause is trauma and PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder). NIghtmares are so common in those suffering from PTSD that it has become part of the criteria for determining diagnosis. A study by Sleep Medicine Clinics found that 80% of people suffering from PTSD have frequent nightmares. A study that looked at over 200 episodes of nightmares found that they frequently contained physical aggression, emotionally intense situations, and failures or unfortunate endings.

Nightmares caused by trauma often involve elements similar to the trauma itself. In a study by the US Department of Veterans affairs, around half the individuals who have nightmares due to PTSD replay their trauma in their dreams. In PTSD nightmares, the regions of the brain involved in these behaviors work to identify potential threats, and could be overactive or overly sensitive. These nightmares caused by trauma are most likely not too different from flashbacks in the daytime, and the general anxiety that these people experience everyday. 

There are several ways that nightmares and PTSD are treated. The first step is to identify the stressor. From there, effective ways to manage it can be found through medication, psychological therapy, exercise, and so much more.  

Psychological therapy for nightmares involves image reversal therapy, sometimes called IRT. This involves the recollection and writing down of nightmares. The patient is then asked to rewrite the nightmare and give it a positive ending. The patient is instructed to rehearse the new version before going to bed with the aim of eradicating the unwanted content. This is a pretty effective method of treatment. It has been found to reduce nightmare distress by significant numbers. 

Nightmares are a response to trauma, anxiety, and stress experienced in life. They are a manifestation of what has harmed you. It is a record of your traumatic experiences and reminder of days you wish to forget. But there are ways in which people can heal and eradicate these pervasive dreams. There is always hope. 

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