Nightmares are distressing no matter what age they are experienced. Child under 10 up to teens will fall victim to nightmares but adults also experience them, though not as often. Why is it that some adults suffer from nightmares in adulthood? From my deep diving, I will help you understand nightmares.
I’m not a doctor and much of my research is based off of psychology journals, credible articles and personal knowledge from experience with a psychologist. The links for the information will be below and citations from the psychologist as needed. The snapshot into this phenomenon will explore potential causes, and navigation through meaning to make the experience less dreadful. Obviously, I encourage anyone to make sure they speak with a professional if there is any distress as not to disrupt your everyday life. Let’s begin.
The Oxford’s dictionary defines a nightmare as such, “a frightening or unpleasant dream; an unpleasant or frightening experience or prospect; a person or situation that is difficult to deal with”. By this definition, we can safely assume that nightmares have a correlation with stress, anxiety, and fear. With that said, only an average of 2% to 8% of people experience chronic nightmares on a regular basis and of that figure women experience them more often. I also came across a fascinating study that women’s nightmares tend to be more unpleasant than men’s nightmares, not to take away from the unpleasantness of the experience as a whole.
Did you know that “nightmare” derives from a term for incubus, a demon that would suffocate people as they slept. Hence why sleep paralysis is the culprit because that’s when your not fully awake and can’t move. Of course chronic nightmares could be interpreted as such because the human brain is still largely unknown to us as a whole, but I didn’t have to tell you that. When it comes to the experience, what can contribute? High levels of stress and anxiety are factors, of course, but are there any other factors? Absolutely! Eating before bed, changing your diet, exercising, even your schedule can disrupt the brain enough to create a nightmare but what causes chronic nightmares? A persistent, consistent, recurring nightmare that haunted your sleep: from my research seems mental illness can be a viable partner. Living normally is already scary but suffering mental illness creates a facet that the majority of the population has a difficult time grasping. Mood disorders, chemical imbalances, drug abuse, alcohol abuse and prescription medications can compound the terror of a night tremor or “nightmare disorder” as it’s now referred.
You might be thinking, there’s so many factors! I agree with you. There are many factors that go into why and how, but what can I do to manage them or at least feel more at ease about my nightmares? I will again repeat that I’m not a doctor but a doctor has suggested the following to me: write them down as detailed as possible, identify what part of the dream was scary or uncomfortable, pinpoint stress in your everyday life that could be a potential cause, keep a consistent sleep ritual, turn lights off or dim and most importantly to stay out of bed when you’re not sleeping. The last one was the most influential piece of advice because for almost a decade I’ve suffered with insomnia due to my diagnosis of PTSD. Stress and trauma can create issues with sleeping, which can lead to frequent nightmares. Speaking with a medical professional along with the advice of staying away from my bed unless I’m sleeping helped. When that doesn’t help, I write them down. It’s important to write them down without prejudice because when you’re terrified, the reason is irrelevant until you can understand the situation. REM sleep can paralyze you and that can make it difficult to distinguish between being awake and sleeping. I always find which part scared me the most and branch out from there.
Like dreams nightmares have meaning. Dreams are typically desires or aspirations we have in our awake life, but nightmares tend to be our stressors. Dreams and nightmares have long been speculated as a way for our brain to process events during the day. My psychiatrist would often say that if you meet someone in a dream you don’t recognize, that’s probably because you passed them at the mall or a restaurant when you were awake. There are many symbols that are discussed in psychology that have significant meanings like how many doors and windows were in the room you were standing in? Did you see a key? Do you remember why you ran into the fall then began plummeting from the sky into the ocean? all these intricacies can be difficult to remember, but can have meaning. I have a hard time with one item having meaning across the board but it’s a great place to start. Doors could mean you have choices but don’t know which to choose, and the key you can’t find is the key to door you’re trying to choose. Maybe you’re running from a monster that is actually the feeling of apprehension to follow your dream. Let’s say there’s a natural disaster or an event that you can’t control is the feeling you have no control in your daily life. Dying in a dream doesn’t typically mean anything foreboding, in psychology it means that you feel like a part of you is dying or dead and you’re starting a new chapter of your life. Losing your teeth could mean you feel like your getting unnecessary judgment from peers or family. Those are just to name a few.
When I had consistent nightmares, there were themes that plagued me. An example is a volcano that would erupt in the center of a trailer park like the one I grew up in. The nightmare that wanders into my mind some nights is the most unsettling thing I could think of, even now. Imagine any normal situation, going to the bank or ordering food at a restaurant and everyone is vomiting. It’s not as unsettling as getting raped or murdered, but it disturbs me just the same. Though I’ve had intense nightmares of monsters abducting me and raping me in a cave. It makes sense that my first assumption would be that the nightmares as listed above would be associated with lack of control and feeling trapped, my therapist at the time surmised the same.
What about other sleeping disorders like sleepwalking and sleep talking? Sleepwalking and sleep talking occur more often in childhood. As noted in the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, it could pose a potential risk as it might be dangerous. Sleepwalking was thought to be “benign” habit but it shouldn’t be ignored. If you’ve ever interacted with someone that experiences symptoms as sleepwalking and they walk and unexpectedly, it can end in a violent outcome whether by them fleeing or lashing out. Sleepwalking can occur concurrently or “comorbidly” with other disorders that affect the brain’s relationship with the body. Sleep talking or “somniloquy” on the other hand have less dangerous side effects. It could cost you a marriage but it’s not insight on a true medical issue. It’s probably the residual daily chatter carrying over into your sleep.
In conclusion I highly suggest therapy, even for a short time, for nightmares because it shouldn’t be perceived as literal but like a story your brain is trying to write to creatively tell you something is wrong or that something is bothering you. If therapy isn’t an option, maybe this will help give you some insight. Nightmares in adulthood doesn’t always indicate an issue but if it is consistent and causing you insomnia, it’s worth asking for help without prejudice. Sometimes when you start at the first step to understanding anxiety, you run into yourself. I would love your feedback, and I hope to expand on this topic for next week. Thank you for reading.
Check out the links below for some of the information that I wrote about.