A Light in the Dark: The Truth Behind Nightmares
You turn down the dark alley when a shadowy figure emerges from a corner. Suddenly, they start to chase you and while sprinting for your life you trip and fall! But then you wake up.
We’ve all experienced a nightmare at least once in our life, but even if you’ve never been chased by a murderer or had your teeth fall out in real life, they still occur. So what does it all mean? Turns out, nightmares might not be as complicated as you think.
What Are Dreams?
Dreams are the thoughts, visions, and sensations we experience as we sleep. They are often misinterpreted as being visions of things that haven’t happened when in reality 99% of them reflect what has already occurred. Some possibilities of their purpose are:
1. Arrangement of info in the brain
Your brain decodes everything seen during the day, placing it in your long term memory and coding it in a way it can understand. This is why most dreams are just fragments and reflections of what happened during your day.
2. Training survival skills
During an experiment where a rat was prevented from dreaming, it lost its ability to perform normal survival activities. Dreams may be used to rehearse survival skills.
3. Reflection of emotions
They are the brain’s way of expressing desires and suppressed emotions, such as wishing to fix the worries in your life.
4. Finding solutions:
Your mind still works when sleeping, trying to find solutions to problems bothering you. This might be why you can wake up with a burst of inspiration.
Some people have claimed their dreams are events that have yet to happen and they’ve seen it exactly as it will happen. This is still not completely understood and only affects a small fraction of dreams.
Dreams are your mind’s way of showing you your subconscious feelings and emotions, giving you signals and symbols to interpret. But these symbols are interpreted differently according to the person’s beliefs about them which can cause a dream or worse, a nightmare.
The Meaning of Nightmares
Nightmares, or bad dreams, are seen as a reflection of your thoughts towards hardships and stresses you are going through in your life.
Often times this is due to fears and emotions, but can also more seriously be the result of distress or trauma which your mind is trying to make sense of through dreaming. In order to understand nightmares, like dreams, you need to relate the symbols found to recent events in your life.
For instance, a recurring dream of falling can represent how you are falling somehow in real life. Maybe you’ve been afraid of losing your job, or perhaps you felt guilty about something earlier and the dream made you reinforce the idea in your head.
By connecting these symbols to things you see in your own life and interpreting their meaning based on your own personal beliefs, you must then find a way to deal with the real life event that is bothering you.
How to Deal with Nightmares
Amy Mistler PhD., a clinical psychologist, says nightmares may trigger fear, terror, sadness, shame, anger or loss. It may also be triggered if these emotions are experienced throughout the day as well.
Sometimes, it can happen just as a force of habit. Much like how a muscle grows stronger the more it is worked, so too can your dream habits as they recur, “[as] parts of the brain involved in facilitating the nightmare become stronger and more active. [So] the nightmare will become more and more likely to come up when we are asleep”.
Her solution she suggests is known as Imagery Rehearsal Therapy, a way of breaking the habit of your mind trying to start the bad dream. Here are the steps:
1. Pick one nightmare to work with
If it involves trauma, pick one that doesn’t involve the act itself. Start off less intense and work your way up. Do one at a time until resolved, which usually happens as they become more neutral or positive.
2. Rewrite the story with a different ending
Try to make it more peaceful, neutral or positive. Don’t create another violent ending (ie. where you win the fight), it must be calming.
3. Each night before falling asleep, picture the new ending
Practicing relaxation exercises like guided meditation can be effective (See list at the end). Doing this every night can resolve issues within a week or two weeks, and Mistler recommends continuing for at least a week after they stop just to be sure.
Recurring nightmares may be terrifying and annoying, but once you get to the root of the problem they can be pretty simple to fix. So the next time you see a killer chasing you in a bad dream, try imagining them holding a baguette instead of an axe. That’ll really change the tone for the better.
List of Meditation Guides