What’s your most frequent nightmare? Is it dreaming that you’re dying, or that one of your loved ones is suffering but you can’t do anything about it? Or maybe you’re waking up with confusion and a racing heart, simply glad that the dream ended.
Nightmares are classified as dream sequences that seem realistic and often awaken the person. They are a complex experience. Though fear is the dominant emotion felt during nightmares, a 2014 study reported that sadness, anger, confusion, disgust, frustration or guilt were also common.
The study, published in the journal Sleep, looked at the content of 351 adults’ nightmares and found that the most frequently reported theme was physical aggression, followed by being chased and the presence of an evil force.
But if bad dreams start frequenting your nights, it could be a sign of health problems. An estimated 2% to 8% of adults can’t get rest because terrifying dreams wreak havoc on their sleeping patterns.
In particular, nightmares can be an indicator of mental health problems, such as anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder and depression.
A phenomenon called REM sleep behavior disorder, in which a person acts out aggressive dreams by screaming, moving around or jumping out of bed, could also predict neurological diseases like Parkinson’s, according to research.
But some theories posit that nightmares can be a way for our brains to cope with and process unpleasant memories.
“We don’t know an awful lot about dreams or nightmares beyond what Freud and some of the other psychoanalytic and psychodynamic tutors told us,” explained professor Jason Ellis, director of Northumbria University’s Centre for Sleep Research. Freud is famous for his “interpretation of dreams,” in which he suggests that dreams are a representation of our wishes, some of which play out in a bizarre way.
One theory, Ellis said, is that dreams are problem-solving exercises. “Under that framework, we would generally see nightmares as part of a process of trying to deal with emotional material,” Ellis said. During a nightmare, the emotions and problems we encounter during the day are turned into characters and scenarios to help us understand and manage them better, for psychological health.
Generally, “nightmares will occur if someone is having a longstanding problem with sleep,” Ellis said, for such reasons as pain or insomnia.
In Jonny Benjamin’s case, it was anxiety that caused him to struggle with sleep, especially during his 20s.
When his anxiety and stress levels were very high, Benjamin, now 31, of London, would go through periods of insomnia. Sleep “became a real issue. Going to sleep, waking up constantly in the night, with feelings of panic – it was really horrible.”
Struggling to fall asleep again would create a vicious cycle of worry. Fretting about his job performance the next day or whether he would be able to sleep normally the following night – on top of not feeling like his normal self or wanting to socialize because of his fatigue – added further stress.