Have you ever wondered what it is about nightmares that makes them so terrifying? Nightmares are dreams full of anxiety, stress and fear. They usually involve the same common themes such as falling or being chased. Knowing why they occur can help us prepare for them when they do come up in our sleep.
There are many theories that try to explain the reason for nightmares. One theory conjectures that dreams are the mind's way of trying to find solutions to problems, some of which may translate into our daily lives. This 'problem solving' theory is often referred to as the Activation Synthesis Hypothesis.
The Activation-Synthesis Theory assumes that dreams are constructed based on information stored in memory during wakefulness. For example, if you have had a dream about being chased by a monster, it is possible one of your friends commented on their fear of monsters recently or it may be related back to something you saw/experienced when you were younger. The main part of this hypothesis suggests that because we do not know how dreams are created, we simply 'fill in the blanks' by interpreting the symbolism and creating a logical story.
The Activation-Synthesis Theory is just one of many possible explanations for why we have nightmares. While it may be true that the majority of our dreams contain elements of problems we've encountered/are facing during wakefulness, there are many cases where this theory does not hold up. For example, studies show that most people who experience sleep paralysis also experience frequent nightmares.
Sleep paralysis occurs when you find yourself unable to move after waking up (sometimes called 'Old Hag Syndrome'). There is a link between sleep paralysis and nightmare frequency because both involve REM (Rapid Movement) atonia – an evolutionary trait that prevents us from sleep walking and physically acting out our dreams.
Scientists have also studied the brain activity of people having nightmares, specifically at the moment they awoke from their nightmare to find it was just a bad dream. The results showed increased activity in regions responsible for sensory perception (e.g., visual cortex) as well as regions responsible for emotions (e.g., amygdala). These findings suggest that nightmares are not constructed by memory but instead are actually real experiences where you perceive something frightening, making it seem very real while you're dreaming.
There are many other theories about what causes nightmares including: biological factors, psychological factors, stressful events, etc. For now you should know that scientists have not found one definitive reason why we have nightmares and there is no 'cure' for nightmares because they usually don't require any treatment.
If you ever find yourself afraid of going to sleep at night, try to relax and set aside time to do something pleasant such as reading a book or watching your favourite movie. Doing this every evening before bed may help prevent the onset of nightmares. If you wake up from a nightmare and find it hard to fall back asleep, make sure not to turn on any lights – light has been shown to suppress production of melatonin which regulates our sleep and wakefulness cycles and helps us fall back asleep once we've awoken from a bad dream.
Being afraid of nightmares can be an issue if left untreated so some tips are finding ways to cope with the stress and anxiety that can come from having a bad dream. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy has been shown to be helpful for people with nightmare issues, as you can learn how to challenge your fears and replace negative thoughts with more positive ones. Do not let nightmares intimidate you – they are only dreams after all!
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