Nightmares can be the stuff of, well, nightmares at times. But there is a growing body of evidence that they could actually be very good for your mental and physical health.
Why do I have bad nightmares every night?
The odd nightmare is not something to lose sleep over, but if you are having regular nightmares, it could indicate a potential underlying problem. If this is the case and you worried about it, you might want to consider seeking some medical advice.
"There can be a number of psychological triggers that cause nightmares in adults. For example, anxiety and depression can cause adult nightmares. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) also commonly causes people to experience chronic, recurrent nightmares. Nightmares in adults can be caused by certain sleep disorders." - webmd.com.
What can you do for nightmares?
If you regularly suffer from nightmares, there are few things you can do to help you get a good night's sleep. But please remember that nightmares are a very common event.
As you will see later in the article, they appear to be a natural part of your brain's function and can actually benefit you in a few ways. That being said, if you are losing sleep because of them, here are some things you might want to consider doing: -
- Establish a regular, relaxing routine before bedtime.
- Offer reassurances.
- Talk about the dream.
- Rewrite the ending.
- Put stress in its place.
- Provide comfort measures.
- Use a night light.
- Exhaust yourself physically through exercise before sleep.
What does having bad dreams mean?
As we have already seen, nightmares are your brain's way of working through a particular problem. This could be past traumas, suppressed emotions/anxieties, or as you will find out later, a way of preparing you for a potential real-life threat.
"Nightmares, or bad dreams, are a type of dream that causes you to feel anxiety, fear or terror. Typically, a person will wake up during or just after having a nightmare, and he or she will be able to remember all or part of the bad dream clearly." - everydayhealth.com.
Not to labor the point, but it should be borne in mind that nightmares are very common and appear to be a natural part of your brain function. But, for particularly lucid nightmares, or regular bad dreams, they could provide some valuable insights into your subconscious.
You might want to start keeping a "dream diary" to see if you can identify patterns in your nightmares. This process could help understand what scares/worries you and look for ways to ameliorate them.
You never know, they may reveal your true path in life!
7 reasons that nightmares might actually be good for you
So, without further ado, here are some reasons why nightmares might actually be good for you. This list is no particular order.
1. Nightmares can make you feel better
Various scientific studies into nightmares have revealed an interesting potential upside to them. Bad dreams, it turns out, could provide you with a way of dealing with stress and anxiety.
By playing out your deepest, darkest fears in a safe "virtual simulation," your brain attempts to play them out in a narrative.
This might sound like a terrible thing, but when you wake up and remember the events, this helps you handle the situation better. By cementing the events in your concrete memories, you treat them like the past, not present.
This, scientists believe, allows you to distance yourself from them and provides a form of emotional release.
2. Nightmares can actually benefit your physical wellbeing
Another surprising benefit of nightmares is the fact that they can actually be physically beneficial to you. Nightmares tend to occur during REM sleep when blood flow decreases to the brain and redirects to the muscles and other vital body systems.
This, it turns out, lets organs and other tissues restore and recover from the daily grind. Growth and stress hormones, your immune system, heart, and blood pressure are all positively affected as a consequence.
While this also happens during dreams, it is important to get as much REM sleep as physically possible.
So, although nightmares are not a very pleasant experience at the time, your body really benefits from the increased blood supply. This will improve your overall wellbeing in the long run.
3. Nightmares are a kind of threat training
Nightmares, according to research by neuroscientists, could be your body's way of training you for potential real-life threats. Rather similar to point 1 above, nightmares can also help you "act out" potentially dangerous situations before they occur in the daytime.
Researchers asked 18 volunteers to EEG headsets while they slept. They then woke them several times during the night to ask them a series of questions about their dreams.
By comparing information on dreams that involved fear, they were able to map their brain activity prior to being woken up. They found that during "scary" dreams, two areas of the brain were particularly active.
These were the insula and cingulate cortex. The former, during the day, is involved in identifying and evaluating emotional responses.
The latter is responsible for preparing the body for physical reactions to perceived threats (aka "fight or flight" responses).
Interesting stuff, but it gets better. A second part of the study involved 89 participants, were asked to keep a "dream diary."
When shown distressing images that would normally trigger a response in the insula and cingulate cortex, those who recorded having more nightmares had a noticeably reduced response.
What's more, their amygdala (aka the brain's "fear center") also showed a marked response reduction.
“Dreams may be considered as real training for our future reactions, and may potentially prepare us to face real-life dangers,” said lead researcher Lampros Perogamvros, a senior lecturer in the Center for Sleep Medicine at University Hospitals Geneva.
4. Nightmares could help you understand suppressed emotions
Nightmares, some scientists believe, can also help you understand, and work through some of those pesky suppressed emotions you might be hiding from yourself.
Technically called dissociation, during nightmares in the REM stage of sleep, your brain's suppression systems are relaxed, and the emotions are unlocked.
This provides you with an unparalleled opportunity to reflect on things you might be suppressing.
"Interpreting dreams and nightmares offers a unique opportunity to reflect on the things we may be suppressing, or gain insight from our subconscious. Barrett questions the usefulness of 'dream dictionaries,' but encourages people to reflect on what their dream might mean to them personally. Pay attention to when you have a nightmare and what it’s about.
Use the scary dream to take a journey through your emotional landscape. You might be surprised by what you find." - Inverse.
5. Nightmares are a kind of natural "exposure therapy"
Scientists have also started to believe that nightmares could act as a form of "exposure therapy" for those who've experienced real traumas in their life. For psychiatrists, this is generally considered as the "gold standard" for treating phobias and PTSD-related conditions in patients.
By gradually exposing someone to their deepest fears, say dogs or spiders, in a safe setting, this kind of therapy slowly learns to manage their phobia. Nightmares appear to work in much the same way.
This is especially true for particularly upsetting events and nightmares, it appears, are your natural way of reliving the past and achieving a kind of closure.
But, it should be noted, much like exposing someone to their phobias while their anxiety levels are high tend to trigger their "fight or flight" responses. Inevitably they will want to extricate themselves from the situation ASAP and this simply reinforces their fears.
This can also happen with nightmares if you wake up prior to the "main event."