By David Joel Miller, MS, Licensed Therapist & Licensed Counselor.
Good sleep and dreaming can help reduce anxiety.
Sleep and the dreams that inhabit the sleep-land can help us make sense of life experiences or they can magnify those fears and impact your awake life. One theory about nightmares is that normal dreams make sense of things and reduce fears but nightmares are a failure of that fear reduction system. This idea is often expressed in some rather technical language but let me try to make it clear using a story to illustrate the possibility that dreams can help you make sense of the world.
Good dreams and bad dreams.
People tend to remember nightmares where the experience becomes so intense it wakes you up. Occasionally you have a “bad dream” which does not wake you up but was so disturbing that you remember it upon awakening. Most of us have occasionally had a “good dream” and remembered the wonderful place or person we experienced in the dreamland. The more good dreams you have the more likely you are to forget them. Bad dreams and nightmares, in particular, you tend to remember.
Dreams continue your awake thoughts.
Nightmares usually feature fear, anxiety, and trauma but many other themes are possible. One theory about dreams is a “continuity” theory. You tend to dream about things in your sleep that you think about when awake. School students dream more about tests, creative people may dream about creative outcomes. Love, friendship or happy times may take place in a dream. Some writers have described those positive dreams as “wish fulfillment.” Which dreams get remembered? That would be the ones with strong emotional content, mostly which are the negative emotion dreams.
Dreams can reduce fear.
Let’s look at how a dream might help make sense of an experience and reduce fear. Say you are in a minor auto accident. There is some damage to your car’s fender. You handle what you need to while awake, but you can’t stop thinking about that accident and when you go to bed it is still on your mind. Thinking about that accident may even make it hard to get to sleep but eventually, you do fall off and then you dream. Your dream is likely to feature some elements of the accident.
The dream pulls up your experience and begins looking at all the parts of the memory. It remembers the car you were in, the people you were with and the garage your car went to for repairs. Your dream may also include the medical attention you received and things you thought about during the accident.
Your brain now takes the experience apart and begins to file the information away for future use. The friends in the car get filed under friends. The garage gets filled under fixing things and so on.
In dreams, information gets stored in useful ways.
So you dream about your day and your car accident again. Only this time your brain pulls us different bits and pieces to make a new experience. You are driving along and this time your doctor and your chiropractor are in the car. You are going to meet your friends at the garage. When you get there you, not the car, get repaired. You get new clothing and a haircut. While waiting for the car you eat lunch in the waiting room only now they are serving you a gourmet meal at your favorite restaurant and you look out the window you are looking at the ocean and the beach. When you get up to go from lunch your mechanic is in the car and you drive through a bank drive-up where they fill up your lap with money.
You dream has now helped you use the recent event to see ways to have happy experiences with friends, get things fixed and secure the money you need to pay for those repairs. None of this is very scary, right? By disassembling experiences and saving facts your brain catalogs your experiences for future use. At least this is the way this particular theory sees dreaming.
Traumatic experiences do not need to result in a mental disorder.
The majority of people exposed to traumatic events do not develop a stress or trauma-related disorder. Those who have some trauma immediately after the event often find the trauma and the dreams about the event go away over time. Your distress may fade over a few days. It may hang on for a while and become Acute Stress Disorder which usually dissipates in a month. But some people do not get better. They develop long-term mental problems. Their experience may result in Posttraumatic Stress Disorder and last for years. Why?
Some dreams do not get disassembled.
Some dreams are so connected together by the negative emotional content they are too painful for the brain to disassemble. In these asleep experiences, the sharp painful edges of the experience are so tied together by the fear or other negative emotions that they will not disassemble. These whole dreams cause a sort of “sleep indigestion” and result in the dreamer waking up often screaming or in intense fear. Panic like symptoms may occur.
Technically it is a nightmare if it wakes you up and a “bad dream” if you do not awaken but just have memories of the dream that are distressing when you awaken. Hopefully, you got that this explanation of dreams and how some dreams become nightmares is not scientifically exact but a simplified story to try to illustrate complex neurochemical processes.
Can Nightmares be cured?
Eventually, most nightmares can be reduced or eliminated with good treatment. I would like to think we will find treatments for them all eventually. How hard it is to treat your particular nightmare problem partially depends on the nature of the nightmares and the nature of the trauma.
Imaginary happenings, contaminated memories from video media respond quite well to treatment. Nightmares in children are often very treatable. Some real, trauma based, nightmares fade on their own. Treatments for entrenched nightmares have had mixed results.
From my reading on this topic, it appears that if you have multiple nightmares about several experiences they may be more readily treated than those people who have a single horrific experience that recurs in their nightmare. There are also differences in results in treating childhood abuse versus adult abuse and trauma. Military type trauma is especially resistant to treatment sometimes.
Currently, there are several treatments that are showing promise. More on that in an upcoming post. Treating entrenched nightmares is something that requires you to be an active participant if the process is to work. Treating nightmares is not something you can do alone. If you or someone you know has recurrent or frequent nightmares, look for professional help.
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