I am often asked why we have nightmares, and the answer is complicated. A nightmare is a type of dream that is usually threatening or frightening. It often includes intense negative emotions, such as fear, sadness, anger, or grief. We still do not know all the functions of sleeping and dreaming despite decades of intense research. However, researchers have developed a few supported theories and it has been assumed nightmares develop for a few different reasons. It has been my experience with clients that one may resonate more with one theory than the other, so feel free to explore them below.
1. Nightmares may be a way our mind is processing trauma-related information. Similarly, dreaming may help us store memories and sort through complicated thoughts and feelings from our day’s experience. Nightmares-especially recurring nightmares or having multiple nightmares in one night- may be a sign this natural process is not working as well as it normally would because we are startled awake from the nightmare content. In this way, our brains can be compared to computers. Think of the last time you tried to download something unsuccessfully. Maybe you were stuck at 31%, it started over, it gets stuck again at the same point and you are left trying over and over. In the same way, having nightmares may be your mind’s attempt to keep starting and restarting this dream function repeatedly.
2. Dreams and nightmares may be stories for our emotions. The emotions we feel just before going to sleep may set the stage for the story that comes to our mind in our sleep. If you go to bed feeling anxious, your brain may reach for a story or memory that matches this feeling resulting in an anxiety dream. This may be true with other activities. How often do we match the music we select to our current mood? Just like we tend to select music that matches our energy and mood, our brain is matching our dreams to the emotions, thoughts, and sensations we have as we fall asleep.
3. Nightmares may reflect a disruption in our mental imagery system. What exactly is mental imagery? A philosopher may ask you to close your eyes and picture an apple in detail. The image your constructed and all the details you were able to produce without actually experiencing the apple in front of you in real time is from your mental imagery system. Researchers theorize that people have traumatic vivid images that become frozen in time. These images then go “viral” and show up more often than we would like, causing great distress. They may feel like they are being spammed by these images while thinking of something completely different and unrelated almost as if images saved in albums have been shuffled and mixed with each other. Overtime, some people post-trauma may avoid utilizing their imagery system at all- avoiding pleasant and neutral images along with the negative images.
Although many people experience nightmares for years, your nighttime experience with sleep and nightmares can change. We are more likely to have a nightmare after having poor sleep the night before. People have successfully managed their nightmares a few different ways including improving sleep, addressing trauma, and/or re-scripting and processing their nightmares with a therapist. After nightmares resolve, most people will report having unpleasant dreams at times that no longer startle them awake or disturb their sleep. If you suffer from chronic nightmares and want to reduce the frequency or intensity, schedule an appointment today.