Have you ever had a nightmare? Then you are probably familiar with that sense of relief you feel when you wake up and realize that the heartbreaking episode was all figment of your imagination. However, it felt real, didn't it?
Apparently many of us are familiar with this feeling. According to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine (AASM), up to 85 percent of all adults have nightmares at times. According to many of these same experts, occasional bad sleep can be really healthy.
It is important to note the intermittent word.
This is because, unfortunately, there are conditions in which a person is subject to "the repeated occurrence of terrifying dreams that provoke awakenings from sleep." This includes a relatively common one known as a nightmare disorder.
Here are a couple of important points to keep in mind in the future:
1. We will discuss how nightmares can be healthy for the psyche. However, most psychologists and sleep experts agree that nightmares arising from an underlying psychological disorder probably do not carry the same benefits. For example, nightmares due to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and major depressive disorder (MDD).
2. Some studies also show a correlation between the frequency of nightmares and suicidal ideation. According to the cited study, people who tried (but did not commit suicide) were more likely to complain of recurring nightmares than the rest of the population.
In short, those who have nightmares in conjunction with a mental health problem should discuss them with a psychologist or someone with similar experience.
Such revelations aside, nightmares can be healthy.
Let's discuss the science of nightmares to get a rudimentary understanding of what goes on under the hood.
Dreams are a product of the default neural network (RND), our "autopilot." RNDs are areas of the brain that tend to remain active even during periods of relative calm. One of those times is during REM sleep, which accounts for about a fifth of our total sleep time.
REM periods generally involve the consolidation of memories, often causing vivid images to be projected from the subconscious. As such, if such images are truly unpleasant, the individual may experience an unhealthy sleep.
As REM intervals get longer, the chances of having a nightmare increase.
There are certain medical conditions, called parasomnias, that are sometimes confused with nightmare disorder. These include:
Night terrors: disorientation episodes that follow slow wave sleep and produce severe symptoms such as kicking, screaming or hitting. Sometimes the person experiencing the night terror may unconsciously get out of bed. The state of confusion that characterizes night terrors can leave the person unable to recall the event, which is often not the case for someone experiencing a nightmare. The night terror will generally occur within three hours of the onset of sleep.
REM sleep disorder: Normally, the body is immobile while we sleep, a state called sleep paralysis, to prevent us from acting out our dreams. However, people suffering from REM sleep disorder can become mobile due to irregular wave production within the brain. This is because the brain could deactivate the brain circuits responsible for sleep paralysis. REM sleep disorder is more common among middle-aged men.
A NOTE ABOUT THE DEFAULT NEURONAL NETWORK (RND)
Although this may be just a little off topic, it is worth briefly discussing the possible problems of an overactive default mode network. Again, the RND is most active when the brain is at rest or not involved in a cognitive task.
The research implicates RND activity in major depressive disorder (MDD) and feelings of anxiety. In addition, Harvard researchers have already found that RND activity is directly related to thinking and “automatic pilot” behaviors, which are also major sources of unhappiness and dissatisfaction in life.
According to Wikipedia, other times the RND is active in addition to sleeping include "when the individual is thinking about himself, remembering the past and planning the future."
It seems fair to conclude, then, that making lifestyle adjustments or training the brain to spend less time ruminating, an explicitly RDN activity, can lead to reducing or eliminating unhealthy nightmare episodes. We'll talk more about how to do just that in the section. "Final thoughts."
RISK FACTORS THAT COULD CAUSE NIGHTMARES
Here are some risk factors that may be associated with more nightmares:
–A concurrent sleep disorder (eg, insomnia, sleep apnea, etc.)
–An untreated medical condition
–Certain prescription drugs (for example, antidepressants, beta-blockers, dementia drugs, and perhaps some others).
–Medical health disorders, such as anxiety, depression, or post-traumatic stress disorder.
–Substance abuse (eg, Alcoholism, drug addiction)
STATISTICS AND TRENDS
Here are some statistics and trends related to nightmares that you may find interesting and relevant from the United States:
- In 3 to 7 percent of the US population nightmares can be considered a "problem." (By "problem," these experts probably mean disturbed sleep derived from nightmares.)
- Nightmares are most common between the ages of 3 and 6 (nightmares tend to increase in number and then decrease around age 10).
- 1 in 20 people experiences at least one nightmare every week.
–About 75 percent of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and 50 percent with personality disorder experience regular nightmares.
HOW NIGHTMARES CAN BE HEALTHY
"If you occasionally have various nightmares, it is a very good opportunity to understand more about the unconscious fears and anxieties that may be arising."
~ Deidre Barrett, Ph.D., Assistant professor of psychology at Harvard University and author of Trauma and Dreams (Source)
In a two-study article published in the journal Human Brain Mapping, the researchers sought to determine the validity of an emerging psychological theory; specifically, these nightmares allow people to resolve emotional distress while stabilizing volatile emotions during wakefulness.
To test this theory, the research team analyzed and analyzed data from two studies.
STUDY # 1
In the first study, the research team used the "serial awakening" method to ask whether they had experienced any fear in any dream state. That involved waking subjects repeatedly after brief periods of sleep.
The primary goal of the first study was to reaffirm that the brain regions associated with fear in dreams were also those that correlate with the processing of undesirable emotions during waking periods.
STUDY # 2
In the second study, 89 participants reported their level of emotional arousal during waking hours. Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) technology identified areas of the brain associated with fear during the waking state.
The primary objective of the second study was to compare people's levels of emotional regulation during waking hours with levels of fear experienced during sleep.
RESULTS OF THE STUDY
In the first study, 12 of the 18 participants were evaluated for "analysis [of brain imaging] of fear versus fearless conditions" during non-REM sleep (NRM), while the remaining eight subjects underwent the same conditions during REM sleep.
The researchers stated that fear in dreams mainly involves two regions of the brain. They are the insula and the midcingulate cortex.
The second study found that "those who reported higher incidence of fear" while dreaming demonstrated a reduction in emotional arousal during wakefulness and a decrease in brain activity in the insular and midcingular cortex "in response to fear-generating stimuli" during waking hours.
In short, nightmares can strengthen our emotional stamina and allow us to untangle and solve problems of the psyche that generally remain below the surface.
FINAL THOUGHTS: ARE NIGHTMARES USEFUL? (ANSWER: IT DEPENDS).
First of all, nightmares suck, especially when they interfere with the restful sleep we all desperately need.
Now for rational reflection. Do nightmares really unravel deeply hidden psychological skeletons? Or is suffering through temporary experience worth it? Perhaps.
It's probably worth it for people who regularly deal with a great deal of stress and irritability. The reason is that an occasional nightmare can serve to release the underlying cause and strengthen your emotional resilience when faced with a similar situation in the future. So the payoff is potentially great.
But people with deep-seated trauma or mental health problems don't get these benefits.
Nightmares stemming from mental health disorders, including trauma, require the assistance of a trained professional.