Tuesday, March 21, 2017

What’s the cause of nightmares?


A stranger haunts us, we fall into the void from the top of a skyscraper, we want to warn someone of a danger but we remain voiceless, we must run to secure ourselves but we remain paralyzed... These are some of the recurring themes in the nightmares of most adults.

Upon awakening, we breathe with difficulty and our hearts seem to want to get out of the chest. In fact, sometimes we need some time to realize that it was just a bad dream.

A study carried out at the University of Pittsburgh indicated that 29% of adults usually has at least one nightmare a month, while between 2 and 6% has a nightmare a week. It’s curious, but older people tend to have fewer nightmares, almost half of young adults.

7 causes of nightmares

Generally nightmares occur when we sleep deeply, during REM sleep. At this stage, the eyes move rapidly but our body is paralyzed because the brain turns off the motor areas, to prevent movements and avoid that we harm ourselves during one of those dreams. But what is the cause of nightmares?

1. Too much stress. Stress is one of the main triggers of nightmares. The tension built up during the day can impact on dreams by the way that dreaming is often an expression of our fears and everyday worries. In fact, a study conducted at the University of Heidelberg with 840 professional athletes revealed that 15% of them tended to have nightmares before the race. Therefore, if you are very stressed out it is likely that those tensions show up during sleep.

2. Expose to a shocking situation before bedtime. The last thing you do before going to sleep influences greatly your dreams. So, if you see a horror film, you read a book of the same kind, or you've just received shocking news, it is likely that these experiences will be reflected in your dreams. Even the violent scenes or the news you see on TV may be reflected in your dreams, even if you think they didn’t have such an impact when you were awake. Therefore, if you want to sleep soundly, you must ensure that nothing ailments the last few hours before going to bed.

3. Not enough sleep. It was noted that long periods of sleep deprivation causes an increase in nightmares. Contrary to popular belief, we do not sleep enough our brains enough enter into a state of excitement that prevents from having a restoring sleep. This is why nightmares are more vivid when we barely slept for a few consecutive days. In addition, they are also more common in people with chronic pain and who have difficulty sleeping.

4. Negative life experiences. Dreams incorporate many details of our everyday life, but usually abstractly. Therefore, normally nightmares are related to experiences that we have lived throughout the day. In fact, a study conducted at Harvard University in which were analyzed the dreams and nightmares of 20 people, concluded that usually in dreams appears the content of the last two to seven days. Although in some cases the cause of the nightmare is older and dates back to autobiographical experiences, especially if they have been impacting and we have not been completely overcome.

5. Personality Characteristics. Some personality traits may make us more likely to have nightmares. A study conducted in the eighties of the last century has found that people who had frequent nightmares also shared three characteristics: mistrust, alienation and emotional detachment. Another study completed by The Graduate Theological Union revealed that people who tend to be conservative report having more nightmares than liberals.

6. Diseases and drugs. Sometimes the cause of nightmares is a disease. Studies have shown that people who suffer from epilepsy, sleep apnea or restless legs syndrome, are more likely to have nightmares because have a more irregular sleep pattern. The nightmares are also common in people who suffer from depression, phobias and post-traumatic stress. Furthermore, it is known that some drugs may increase the odds of having nightmares, especially those that alter the levels of neurotransmitters in the brain, such as antidepressants, medicines for the treatment of Parkinson's, barbiturates and benzodiazepines.

7. A too heavy dinner.
Eating too much before going to bed is a major cause of nightmares because of a slower and more complicated digestion, metabolism will stay more active, increasing our body temperature and, therefore, the brain activity will be stimulated. So you probably will not sleep well and will have nightmares.

And if nightmares were messages to help us solve our problems?

The good news is that not all silver is lining. In fact, one of the theories that attempt to explain the origin and meaning of nightmares speculates that they arise because in that moment we are thinking of a complex situation and our mind in trying to find a solution. During the day, when we think of something that makes us afraid or causes stress, we tend to set the idea apart and get involved into a different problem, but when we are asleep, our mind wanders aimlessly and we can’t benefit of distractions. And then is when nightmares appear.

According to this theory, often nightmares try to play difficult scenarios to help us find solutions that can serve us during the day or just encourage us to respond to adversity. So, even if we’re scared by them, finally nightmares would not be so negative.

Bulkeley, K. (2012) Dream Recall and Political Ideology: Results of a Demographic Survey. Dreaming; 22(1): 1–9.
Blagrove, M. et. Al. (2011) Assessing the Dream-Lag Effect for REM and NREM Stage 2 Dreams. PLoS One; 6(10): e26708.
Erlacher, D. et. Al. (2011) Frequency of nightmares and gender significantly predict distressing dreams of German athletes before competitions or games. J Psychol; 145(4): 331-342.
Hasler, B. & Germain, A. (2009) Correlates and Treatments of Nightmares in Adults. Sleep Med Clin; 4(4): 507–517.
Kales, A. et. Al. (1980) Nightmares: Clinical characteristics and personality patterns. The American Journal of Psychiatry; 137(10): 1197-1201.


Keep feeding your neurons

What’s the cause of nightmares?
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Jennifer Delgado Suárez

Psicologist by profession and passion, dedicated to to string words together. Discover my Books


Psychology as you never heard about...

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