Understanding nightmares: the science behind bad dreams

understanding nightmares

We are all familiar with bad dreams, so why are so many people still in the dark about why they occur and how to prevent them?

Sinking into bed at the end of the day is one of life’s simple pleasures, but not if you suffer from chronic bad dreams. Nightmares are elaborate dreams that evoke feelings of anxiety, sadness and fear, often causing the sleeper to wake up in order to avoid the perceived danger. These bad dreams are frequently remembered after waking and can make it hard to get back to sleep. They can even cause stress and tiredness throughout the day.

Chances are, we’ve all had a nightmare at some point in our lives. But while isolated incidents of bad dreams are perfectly normal, recurring nightmares should not be ignored. Here’s everything you need to know about this distressing affliction.


What are nightmares?

Nightmares are dreams that cause fear, distress, anxiety and even horror. They tend to occur in the later part of the night, often during rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. They also tend to wake up the sleeper, making it easier to remember the contents of the dream.

Nightmares that occur once are usually a reaction to some stress, and some clinicians even think that these bad dreams are helping us work through internal trauma. However, when nightmares occur frequently, it can have a detrimental impact on our ability to function throughout the day. This is referred to as Nightmare Disorder.

Common symptoms of Nightmare Disorder include:

  • Repeatedly waking up with recollection of a long, frightening dream that centres around threats to security, survival or physical integrity
  • Being alert and orientated as soon as you wake up
  • Experiencing an impairment to your work and/or social life as a result of poor quality sleep
  • Having no medical condition or medications which could also cause these symptoms

What causes nightmares?

Nightmares usually begin in childhood at around age 10, and are more common in girls than boys. When nightmares occur in adulthood, they are usually a subconscious attempt to face any significant worries or traumas we’re living with. They most commonly occur during REM sleep, which is when our brain produces proteins and stimulates our learning. During this time, the brain also sends signals to the limbs to cause temporary paralysis, as a way of stopping us from actually acting out our dreams in real life.

One theory states that during REM sleep, your brain is trying to organise and interpret the signals it’s receiving. In order to do this, your brain creates a ‘story’ out of the fragmented brain activity. In 60% of cases, a major life events precedes the onset of nightmares, be it illness, bereavement or the end of a relationship. Anxiety, stress and sleep disorders are also associated with nightmares, and raising your metabolism by eating just before bed can also increase the likelihood of bad dreams.


What can you do about them?

Around 50% of the adult population experience occasional nightmares and require no treatment, but for the 1% who suffer regular nightmares, there are ways to reduce your chances of bad dreams. This most often involves trying to get to the root of the nightmares by asking yourself what is particularly worrying or affecting you right now. Speaking to a therapist or even just a loved one can reduce the intensity of your dreams’ negativity.

You should also read up carefully on the potential side effects of any prescription medication you’re currently taking, as many of these can impact your sleep quality.

Improving your sleep quality in general can help you sleep more peacefully. Sleep tips from the National Sleep Foundation include setting (and sticking to) a schedule, exercising daily, avoiding caffeine, nicotine and alcohol, unwinding before bed with a book or meditation, rising with the sun and keeping the room at a comfortably cool temperature. A high quality mattress can also help you rest easy.

Mammoth uses technologies developed and proven in healthcare to ensure a good night’s sleep for our customers. Discover the comfort of a Mammoth mattress for yourself by test driving one today. Click here to find your nearest retailer.