Have you ever wondered why you get nightmares? Or, have you tried to read something into your nightmares? I know that I have! Sometimes I dream such vivid dreams that it stays with me for weeks on end. When I dream these kind of dreams and the afterimages just won’t go away, I start wondering if they mean anything. Know what I mean..?

My Childhood Nightmares

I don’t know about you, but dreams and nightmares in particular is something that interests me greatly. Some of my childhood nightmares are still crystal clear in my mind…

For instance, I had this one recurring nightmare as a child. In the dream I would go to a shopping centre close to where I lived to buy my mom a birthday gift. (Coincidentally I went to that very same shopping centre just this morning). So in the dream I would go into a jewellery store to look for a gift and then once I found the gift and paid for it, I couldn’t find the doors to leave the shop. After walking in circles a couple of times, I would finally find the exit.

But once I left the shop, I always ended up in an abandoned corridor that didn’t seem to have any shops or people on or in it. After following the corridor for a seemingly endless period of time, I would see a man waving a flag and beckoning me to go to him. Upon meeting this man, he would usher me into a room through a huge set of heavy wooden double doors. Once through the doors they would slam shut, leaving me in total darkness. But the darkness would soon be replaced by eerily flickering green and red lights.

All the while, from the moment I set foot in the jewellery store to the moment when the lights started to flicker, I would feel this sense of dread building in the back of my mind. Most times I would wake up screaming by the time the green and red lights, but sometimes I would stay captured in the room until a man came into the room through a small door which was hidden from me up until that moment. I never dreamt further than that. After the nightmare I could never go back to sleep until my mom or dad talked me through it and assured me that it was not real.

There are a couple of other dreams that are as clear to me as the one I just described, but I will refrain from boring you with those.

Dreams, Nightmares and their Effect on you

These dreams that are so vivid in my memory, do they mean anything? Did they influence the way I perceive reality? Do they affect the way in which I treat other people, places or things?

I sometimes wonder about these things. Do you?

There is no doubt in my mind that I am not the only person grappling with these questions. Let me just clarify here that I am not a mystic. I do not believe that I should try to make serious life decisions based on the dreams or nightmares that I had. Sure, I want to know how my dreams influenced my development, but I do not see dreams as a part of my decision making process. Unless I decide to write a book based on my dreams, but that will be pure narrating. It won’t be some airy fairy book on how to interpret your dreams and what not.

What does Science say about Nightmares?

You might ask: “If you are not an interpreter of dreams, why do you ask these sorts of questions?”

The answer is simple really. Curiosity. I want to know, physiologically speaking, why I dream. What triggers my brain to conjure up all of these images, scents and dialogues? And why do I remember some of my dreams so clearly that most people think they are made up stories. Why do I remember my childhood nightmares better than most of my waking hours of the same time frame?

Let’s take a look at what the learned people say about this.

Rapid Eye Movement (REM) Sleep and Nightmares

First off we need to establish a couple of facts regarding sleep and nightmares. There are two kinds of nightmares: A waking nightmare, which is a horrible situation that you can find yourself in, like being held up in a bank robbery. And then the traditional nightmare, which we are discussing in this blog post. The sleeping nightmare. This is a bad dream that can have a negative impact on your sleep and rest rates.

Now that you know we are talking about the sleeping kind nightmares (I’m sure you already knew, but hey! It is always better to be one hundred percent certain than fairly sure), let’s talk about sleep.

Until fairly recently I was not aware of the fact that there are different types of sleep. Did you know this?

There are two main stages of sleep, REM sleep and non-REM sleep of which the latter can be subdivided into three stages or types. According to William C. Dement, when a person is in the non-REM sleep state he or she has an idling brain in a moving body. But when the same person is in the REM state of sleep, his or her brain is active while the body is semi-paralysed.

What happens to the body during REM sleep?

Scientists experimented on people by monitoring their sleep with an Electroencephalogram (EEG). During the different stages of sleep the scientists picked up that brain activity varied throughout the night. When the test subjects were in REM sleep, their brain waves were fast and “shallow”, similar to when the subjects were awake. While in non-REM sleep, the brain seemed to show much less activity. While the thalamus and cerebral cortex are very active during REM sleep, the rest of the brain and nervous system is fairly quiet. So quite in fact, that some of the muscles are temporarily disabled. That is scary!

Interestingly, infants spend more time in REM sleep than adults. Scientists believe that this might be because infants have to learn more new things each day than the average adult. It seems that during REM sleep, the brain stores and sorts through the things that you have learned while awake. One study showed that people deprived of REM sleep were less likely to remember something they learnt before going to bed than people deprived of non-REM sleep. This shows that REM sleep helps us to retain our memories.

Maybe that is why I remember my childhood dreams so vividly! It sort of makes sense to me. As an infant I spent a lot of my sleeping time in the REM sleep state. If it is true that people dream during REM sleep and that REM sleep stimulates the capture of memories, it makes sense that I can remember my childhood dreams. Do you follow my logic?

So are Nightmares good or bad and are they common?

According to research, nightmares are more common in infants and teenagers than in adults. This kind of makes sense as well, if you think about it. I mean, if you dream more as a child, chances are you will have more nightmares as a child!

Psychology Today says that roughly 50% of adults get nightmares and women are more prone to nightmares than men. They advise that you shouldn’t worry about having the occasional bad dream, but if you have nightmares more than once a week, you should seek out some help. Bad dreams can become a problem if they keep you from sleeping properly and if the content of the dreams haunts you during the day. If you have recurring bad dreams that make you feel anxious and unfocused at work, you have a Nightmare Disorder.

Why are you having these recurring bad dreams?

Sometimes you might have a nightmare after you watched a scary movie, but that is not always the case. Psychologists believe that more than half of the recorded cases of Nightmare Disorder were caused by some kind of stressful life event. In 60% of these cases, patients experienced severe trauma or life changing circumstances at the onset of Nightmare Disorder. Loss of a loved one, being violently assaulted or even changing your medication could trigger recurring nightmares.

The best way to deal with this problem is to talk about it. Just go to a family member or a trusted friend and tell them about your dreams. You do not need to go to a psychiatrist to talk about your problems, even though it is sometimes easier to distance yourself from the person you are talking to about your dreams. If you do have a friend that you trust though, it is just so much easier and cheaper to talk about it!

On the other hand, if the nightmares started after changing your medication, telling your friend might not be the solution. If this is the case, you should probably contact your medical practitioner and tell them about it. They might be able to explain why it is happening and tell you that it will pass… Or they might just change your medication again.

Nightmarish Creatures

Even though we have established that horror flicks are not the number one trigger for nightmares, I thought it would be fun to take a glimpse at creatures that might dwell in your darker dreams…

Vampires

The full moon, the shadowed corners and the open curtains… It brings to mind a scene from the famous Dracula. Half man half beast, Count Dracula was one of the last known Vampires on Earth (purely fictional, of course). A man that can pass through walls and has the strength of an ox. Contrary to popular belief, Count Dracula can turn into more animals than just a bat. He can take the form of a big black dog as well. He is at his strongest when the moon is out and does not like water very much. The worst part is his eating habits. Count Dracula likes to drink human blood, directly from his victims’ neck.

According to most modern vampire movies, being bitten by a vampire either kills you or turns you into a vampire on site. In the legends of Dracula though, he fed off the same victim many times, slowly weakening their resolve and transforming them into lesser vampires that will do his bidding.

If vampires really existed, it would indeed be something from a nightmare!

Spiders

Macro view of the eyes and face of a spider in manchester

Hairy, eight legged creatures with massive teeth and webs to ensnare their pray… What is not to be afraid of!? I am truly terrified of spiders, even the small ones. Imagine a mythical spider like Shelob from J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings or Aragog from J.K Rowling’s Harry Potter! If I came across one of those, I would probably die of fright before either one of them could get to me. Easy prey, as it were…

But not all spiders are terrifying man eaters. In fact, apart from the Australian Funnel-web spider that has fangs strong enough to pierce through a toenail, most of them are not. Unlike vampires, spiders are real (although not as big as Shelob or Aragog). There are different types of spiders that hunt in all sorts of unique ways. Some of them hunt their pray, while others just spin their webs and wait for a fly or a mosquito to get entangled in its sticky strands. Supposedly they are good for the environment.

Echo friendly or not, this creature is definitely on my nightmare list!

Sharks

Dark shot of shark with sharp teeth in water at Moody Gardens

For seriously misunderstood gentle giants, they sure have large teeth! In most cases sharks do not hunt humans as depicted in Jaws and Deep Blue Sea, but I do not want to take my chances. This is one of the most feared creatures on our planet and definitely a trigger for bad dreams. I myself have had a few shark related nightmares and who can blame me? Swimming with a seven meter sea monster that can bite me in half has never been on the top of my list of priorities…

Research has shown that sharks are not aggressive towards humans, as a rule. Still, I don’t want to be around when one of them is in a bad mood.

I think I am going to do some relaxing yoga to clear the spiders from my mind.

Sleep well tonight 😉