The Science of Nightmares

The jolt of fear and terror felt as we run for our lives to escape danger quickly eases us back into consciousness in bed to help us flee the dreamscape. Nightmares tend to creep in and out at night in our lifetime, primarily during childhood, but why do they happen in the first place? Do we ever outgrow bad dreams?

Why nightmares happen:

Nightmares can be vivid and frightening detailed images that can leave us in a state of panic and fear after we wake up. Most young children experience nightmares, with an estimated 10 percent to 50 percent between the ages of 5 and 12 years having nightmares severe enough to disturb their parents, according to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine. Children’s nightmares may stem from listening to a scary story, TV show or movie, or even feeling anxious and stressed during the day from starting school to a death in the family. Typically most kids will grow out of them, but what happened to adults?

Only two to eight percent of the adult population is plagued by nightmares, says the AASM, which involves some of the same triggers seen in children’s nightmares. Lauri Quinn Loewenberg, a professional dream analyst and author of Dream On it, unlock your dreams change your life, stresses the importance of understanding that dreaming is actually a thinking process; a continuation of our thoughts stream from the day. “The nightmare is when we are thinking about difficult issues during REM and trying to sort them out. We often try to ignore our difficult issues with distractions during the day but when we are asleep and are forced to be alone in our own heads, these difficult issues will be addressed,” she told Medical Daily in an email.

Unresolved conflict is not the only causation of nightmares, poor eating habits can also contribute to the frequency of these terror episodes. people can have nightmares after having a late-night snack. Eating meals or snacks that are high in carbohydrates in the late hours of the night can increase brain activity and body metabolism.

Carol Wasserman, a certified holistic health practitioner with a private practice in Manhattan, N.Y., also suggests an unknown allergy can trigger reoccurring episodes. “For example, if you have an allergy to peaches, but are not aware, you could be getting nightmares, and once you stop eating peach ice cream at night the nightmares stop” she told Medical Daily in an interview.

Wasserman adds she was unaware that she was allergic to shrimp and had nightmares after consumption. “Every time I ate shrimp I had a restless night and bad dreams. So I stopped the shrimp and now I sleep peacefully.”

Nightmares in adults can be spontaneous, but are generally triggered by psychological factors like anxiety and depression, and the result of poor nutrition. Moreover, sleep disorders including sleep apnea and restless legs syndroms can cause people to experience chronic, recurrent nightmares. What happens to the brain when these factors contribute to the onset of nightmares?

The Brain during a nightmare

Nightmares tend to occur in the last third of the night when REM sleep is the strongest. Sleep is divided into four stages: Stage 1 (sleep onset0, stage 2( light sleep) and Stage 3 and 4 (deep sleep)-the REM stages. REM sleep occurs every 90 minutes during the night and is associated with high brain activity, rapid eye movements and inhibited voluntary motor activity. Typically, dreaming occurs in all stages, with 80 percent of people awakened during REM sleep and sleep onset (stages 1 and 2), while 40 percent of persons are awakened from a deep sleep.

The amygdala, which is regulated by the front lobes of the brain, seems to be the culprit when it comes to nightmares. Neuroimaging studies of the brain while dreaming show the amygdala is highly activated during REM. In Patric McNamara’s book, nightmares; the science and solution of those frightening versions during sleep, be emphasized the amygdala’s role in handling negative mentions such as fear and aggression. This may explain why the over-activation of the amygdala during REM can produce fear responses in the dreamer.

“Once we enter REM sleep, which is when dreaming takes place, the brain is working differently (certain parts of the brain become dormant while others become highly active), so instead of thinking in literal terms and words you are thinking in pictures, symbols and emotions..metaphors” Loewenberg said.

The Dreamers who have more nightmares

Most young children are susceptible to nightmares, and a pocket of the adult population will experience the occasional nightmare in their lifetime. However, which adults are more prone to bad dreams than others?

Several studies have found age, personality type, and trauma can influence the frequency of nightmares for dreamers. A 1990 study published found 47 percent of college students had at least one nightmare in a two week study.

AN everyday fear, like a car accident, is known to trigger nightmares in the blind. A 2014 study published found blind people have four times more nightmares than those with vision.

The study confirmed the nightmares were associated with emotions the blind experience while awake, such as the potential of embarassing social situations like spilling a cup of coffee.

The more sensitive people, those who avoid confrontation at all costs and who get let down very easily are more prone to nightmares, simply because life and choices are more difficult for them.

The Dark Truth Behind the Nightmare

There a few common symbols in nightmares, such as death and murder. Death is typically about something changing or ending. When dreaming about death and children, they tend to occur when the child has reached a milestone such as learning how to walk, starting preschool, or learning how to drive, Loewenberg shares, “dreaming iout child dies, for example is typically caused by the difficult realization of how fast time is going and the young, needy child we love to cuddle.”

Like death, murder is about an ending or change, but with a forced ending. We often tend to dream someone is trying to murder us when we are feeling pressured to put an end to or change something either about ourselves or ourlives.

Unresolved conflcits don’t go away.

And it shape our personality. Childhood trauma can lead to feelings of insecurity or constantly seeking validation, and feel like you are constantly under attack if you receive criticism. This suggests our life experiences, both past and present, not only have an influence on our lives but in our dreams as well.

In order to have a better grasp of our dreams, we must begin to address the issues that plague us in the day.

 

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