Bad dreams tend to be associated with children, which is why adults often feel embarrassed admitting to them. But nightmares are not “childish.” No matter what your age they can be deeply upsetting. Indeed, those who suffer from them on a regular basis may literally dread going to sleep. Thankfully, much can be done both to reduce their impact and even to prevent them altogether.
The precise nature and origin of nightmares are still not fully understood. One controversial but fascinating theory is that human beings are somehow re-living the traumas of their evolutionary past. Jungians, for example, argue that we each inherit the collective experiences or memories of mankind, known as the “collective unconscious” (described by Jung as a “million-year-old man”). Darwin even speculated that when a child has a nightmare about “monsters,” she may in fact be recalling a time when our mammalian predecessors were hunted by reptiles. These “archaic memories,” as Darwin puts it, linger in the collective unconscious and occasionally resurface during dreams.
Personal trauma often causes nightmares as well. For example, someone whose partner died a slow and painful death may dream of them yelling, crying, or rising from the grave. Grief is often accompanied by guilt, which can make such nightmares more vivid and intense (counsellors sometimes tell the bereaved that they will fully recover only when the guilt ebbs away). If you have lost someone and find yourself dreaming of them attacking or hunting you, this may be repressed guilt over your failure to ease their pain or “save” them.
War veterans with PTSD, or “Post Traumatic Stress Disorder,” often suffer nightmares, as do the victims of mugging, bankruptcy, car accidents, or sexual assault. Some even argue that the function of nightmares is to help people work through, or come to terms with, such traumatic experiences. Simply admitting to this and talking about the trauma in broad daylight may in itself help you.
General stress is another common cause. Even depression increases your chances. Eating junk food late at night can also cause them. In fact, eating almost anything late at night is a bad idea since it raises the body’s metabolism and increases brain activity. Drugs, both legal and illegal, may also be to blame. SSRI anti-depressants are notorious. When people first take them, they often report bad dreams. Worst of all, when they suddenly stop (rather than gradually reducing their dose over several weeks or months), or even forget to take one, nightmares are almost guaranteed.
What we do know is that dreams occur during the REM phase of sleep. REM stands for “Rapid Eye Movement” and usually takes place during the latter part of the night (interestingly, this is something we share with other mammals, but not with reptiles – anyone who owns a dog has probably noted him whimpering and moving his legs during sleep). This part of sleep begins when signals from an area at the base of the brain travel to the thalamus, then on to the cerebral cortex. When the cortex tries to make sense of these random signals, dreams are the result. So, in a sense, a dream is a story created out of this fragmentary activity.
Nightmares usually wake the dreamer up. And when he does wake up, he often does so with a start, or even a scream or gasp. Some will sweat, tremble, or cry. Another common symptom is intense alertness and awareness. When people wake from a nightmare, they tend to do so sharply and suddenly. It is as if some sort of survival instinct kicks in, and the person may even sit bolt upright. Usually, the dreamer will be instantly alert upon waking and highly conscious of everything around him. This tendency can probably be explained through evolution: the dreamer feels vulnerable or attacked and so must become aware of potential assailants or predators lurking in the shadows.
Distinguishing a nightmare from a bad dream isn’t always easy. In general, though, people will remember nightmares, sometimes for weeks. Dreams tend to be harder to recall. And nightmares usually involve some kind of threat to one’s survival. Or they will be so horrific that the individual is ashamed to describe them. Nightmares are generally more common among children and adolescents. Nevertheless, of those adults questioned over half said they experience occasional nightmares (as opposed to just unpleasant dreams). And women seem to be more prone to them than men, both in infancy and adulthood.
The next time you have a nightmare, switch on the bedside light immediately and get out of bed. Ideally, leave your bedroom and go downstairs, or walk into your favorite room in the house or apartment. Switch on all the lights and make a hot drink, though not one that contains caffeine (warm milk is a good idea). Next, put on a DVD or TV show with people cheerfully doing something routine and mundane.
Some would disagree and argue that bright lights or flashing images overstimulate and prevent sleep. But it can also be soothing and reassuring (especially if you live alone). When you have a nightmare, you enter a hellish alternative reality (it is no coincidence that medieval paintings or images of Hell resemble nightmares). People want to return to ordinary, mundane reality as soon as possible. Hearing another human voice, especially if it is cheerful and friendly, grounds you. If you live alone and are experiencing nightmares on a regular basis, keep some recordings close by. These could be recordings you’ve made from the TV or radio, but be sure they include the sound of a cheerful and warm human voice – just an ordinary, nice person chatting about something pleasant and trivial.
If you’d rather not switch on the TV, try reading a few pages from a pleasant book (P. G. Wodehouse, for example), or look at some glossy photographs of a sunny beach or snow-covered cathedral. A book of favorite paintings may also help. Once you have re-grounded yourself in this way, try some deep breathing, in through your nose as far as you can then out through your mouth as far as you can. Repeat this six times and then maybe do a little meditation. Now return to bed.
Another useful tip is to write down the things that are frightening or worrying you before you get into bed at night. Try not to alarm yourself, and try not to allow your mind free reign. The idea is to simply offload your worries for the night. Indeed, it could be described as a symbolic act. Though you may feel foolish, think of it as emptying your mind for the night.
More generally, be very careful what you expose yourself to. Remember, you will get back what you put in. If you read some horrible newspaper story about rape or torture before going to bed, do not be surprised if your dreams are disturbed. If you are prone to nightmares, it might be a good idea to avoid the news and social media altogether, or at least until after six in the evening. And be careful of the company you keep. Do not go for an evening drink with a gloomy, depressed friend whose life is in turmoil and who is using you to offload his concerns.
Finally, be careful how you treat your body. Body and mind are not separate entities. On the contrary, the body affects the mind as much the mind affects the body. Anyone who eats a big lump of cheese just before going to bed knows the truth of this! First, be very careful with medication. If you take tranquilizers, anti-depressants, sleeping pills, or any other powerful tablet on a daily basis, respect them. And follow the instructions carefully. If you are advised to take them after meals, or first thing in the morning, or whatever it may be, then do so. Above all, be very wary of skipping a dose or stopping suddenly.
Physical fitness and healthy eating should also be priorities. Take regular, gentle exercise, preferably in natural light (swim in the sea, for example, or go for long walks in the countryside with a friend). When you have finished your exercise, try to warm down with some yoga, meditation, or massage. But don’t exercise too late. And do not eat too late either. Again, if you are having regular nightmares, try eating your main meal at lunchtime. If that isn’t possible, eat it as soon as you get home from work. And make it a general rule to eat nothing after six in the evening. An hour or so before going to bed you could also try soaking in a hot bath filled with some kind of relaxing lotion. And as you lay there, listen to an audiobook – preferably something comic or light.
As for what you eat, keep it healthy. Reduce or eliminate caffeine and sugar. And also be wary of sweeteners and artificial colorings or preservatives. If the nightmares are beginning to really upset you, go raw for a few days, eating nothing but raw fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds, and drinking nothing but purified water. You may be astonished by the results. Above all, avoid alcohol before bedtime. This may help to knock you out, but it is deceptive. Yes, you will find it easier to go to sleep, but your sleep will be shallow and disturbed.
Be kind to yourself. It isn’t only children who suffer from nightmares – anyone can, from an infant to a 100-year-old. And they are dreadful. The idea that nightmares are childish and should not trouble an adult is absurd, though it probably explains the reluctance to seek help. This is a pity, since nightmares are relatively easy to overcome.