Nightmares: Should You Be Afraid of Them?

Almost everyone knows the familiar feeling of waking up disturbed or upset after a bad dream. Both kids and adults experience nightmares now and then. Just like normal dreams, nightmares or “bad dreams” occur during the rapid eye movement (REM) stages of our sleep when our brain is the most active, particularly the amygdala and hippocampus. The amygdala helps us go through our emotions, while the hippocampus helps us sort out and store our memories.

Just as you feel bliss and relaxation in a dream, once in a while, you may also have nightmares of falling, being chased, lost, or trapped. Both of these are indications that you successfully went through the REM phase this time of your sleep. You may wake up feeling afraid, sad, angry, guilty, or anxious after these kinds of bad dreams that, for some, it’s difficult getting back to sleep.

However, recent research offers a different perspective on the way we view nightmares. As far as we know, bad dreams are closely linked to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), stress, anxiety, substance misuse, or other mental health disorders. But if they occur just occasionally and do not disrupt your sleeping pattern, they can actually be very beneficial to your health.

Why is this so? Normally, you get bad dreams when you’re exposed to scary books, video games, or movies. Or it might be because you have had an emotionally uncomfortable experience during the day. For instance, you were scolded by your boss today. If you get a nightmare related to it later that night, it will help you feel less emotional about it the next day when you face the boss.

Bad Dreams Help You Sort Out Your Emotions

As mentioned, the amygdala is most active when you’re at the REM stage of your sleep. This part of the brain greatly helps you sort your emotions throughout the night. When we sleep, our brains tend to go through the memories from the previous day, then reshuffling or dusting off the older memories.

During the REM stage, we store our highly emotional memories, causing intense or vivid dreams. When we have nightmares, our amygdala triggers our survival instincts, particularly the fight-or-flight response. Bad dreams can be terrifying, but they actually help us prepare for what we may have to fear the next day, specifically called fear conditioning.

Our amygdala turns our bad dreams into a time of mind resetting for the next day. During this nighttime stress, our bodies release cortisol, the hormones responsible for regulating our stress reactions. Having had high cortisol levels as we wake up in the morning, we then get to respond well to that day’s stresses early on. It also means we get to dump our emotional baggage in the night so that we can start fresh the next morning.

man sleeping soundly

Dreams Are Generally Good for Your Health

Americans nowadays are getting busier and are almost always lacking sleep. This shows up as drowsiness while driving or becoming more irritable. But it isn’t just about not getting enough hours of sleep. It may also be because of a lack of going through the REM stage while sleeping. Some experts even claim this as a truth—that a lack of dreaming or REM sleep is responsible for many health problems Americans face nowadays. For these experts, they believe these issues don’t just spring up generally from poor sleep.

While normal dreams differ from nightmares, the two are similar in a way that they both occur during the REM stages of sleep. Having either of these two at night just means your sleep successfully went through the REM stage. It all goes back to conditioning our brains toward fear. In fact, Rutgers Magazine claims that REM sleep is an antidote for fear. Having emotional resilience or the ability to manage stress healthily can help promote our health overall.

When Should You Seek Treatment for Nightmares?

It’s another thing to have recurring nightmares. If they happen more than once a week, disrupt your sleep, mood, or daily activity, or occur when you begin taking a new medication, you should see your health care provider for treatment. These symptoms already mean you have a nightmare disorder, which can be treated through psychotherapy or medications.

For now, here are what you can do by yourself to stop your nightmare disorder:

  • Follow a consistent sleeping routine.
  • Avoid alcohol and caffeine.
  • Reduce your time using gadgets before going to sleep.
  • Practice any relaxing methods.
  • Make your sleep environment more comfortable.

If your nightmares just occur occasionally, and you’re in good health, they’re nothing to worry about. The awakening truth about nightmares is that they can help you manage stress and anxiety. You might even have to be grateful for the fear conditioning they give.


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