Nightmares, like other dreams, occur most often during REM sleep (though we dream throughout the entire sleep cycle). Unlike other dreams, however, nightmares usually cause dreamers to wake up.
If you don't wake up, is it still a nightmare? Well, not technically. You might just want to call it a bad dream.
Nightmares are most often characterized by the following symptoms:
~ a sense of dream dread or fear that may stay with you for hours or even days
~ The physical paralysis, called atonia, that signifies REM sleep (as opposed to the physical arousal common in night terrors), but perhaps with more eye movements than usual and slightly elevated pulse and respiration rates.
~ The ability to vividly recall all or part of a frightening dream story.
~ The dreamer usually finds him or herself being threatened or harmed in some way
~ A recognition of personal dream themes, or a repetition of the dream itself for months, years, or even decades.
The main feature of a nightmare is that it's scary. It's often long, intricately detailed, and among the easiest of our dreams to remember. Nightmares aren't considered a sleep disorder, as night terrors are unless they become recurring nightmares. Frequent occurrence of nightmares becomes a disorder when it impairs social, occupational and other important areas of functioning. At this point, it may be referred to as Nightmare Disorder (formerly Dream Anxiety Disorder) or "repeated nightmares." "Repeated nightmares" is defined more specifically as a series of nightmares with a recurring theme that disturb the dreamer's sleep on a regular basis. It's interesting to note that while people with night terrors exhibit frightening physical symptoms such as screaming or kicking, and are inconsolable during an episode, they don't remember anything later if they're allowed to settle back into sleep.
Nightmares, however, are a different story. The dream content of nightmares has much to reveal to us, if we're courageous enough to take a closer look at what's scaring us. Though it's hard to believe, nightmares can be very beneficial. Often they will point out what we're really afraid of, rather than what we think or what we admit (even to ourselves) we're afraid of.
Some factors that seem to contribute to nightmare frequency are: illness (especially fever), stress (caused by situations like the difficulties of adolescence, moving, hard times at school or work), troubled relationships and traumatic events, like being mugged or experiencing a serious earthquake. Traumatic events can trigger a long lasting series of recurrent nightmares.
Post-traumatic stress nightmares (PSNs) are different from your average run-of-the-mill nightmare in that they're usually experienced by people who've lived through a traumatic event, and the dream content and story will closely resemble the event. So there's very little disguised imagery. Robert Van de Castle points out that the dream is recurrent with little alteration from time to time, except that elements from the dreamer's current environment may gradually be incorporated into the prescribed dream plot.
One psychological theory holds that post-traumatic dreams are the body and mind's joint way of replaying the event in an attempt to master it within the "safe" context of the sleeping body and dreaming mind, where the event can be re-experienced without harm. Eventually the anxiety and stress associated with the traumatic event diminishes as the dreamer regains control and confidence in waking life.
It's also important to recognize that such things as a messy and vicious divorce can be experienced as trauma, especially by children. Although we may not have been prisoners of war, or survived a plane crash, there are still quite a few events in our everyday lives that qualify as traumatic.
The more standard scary dream (and what most of us consider a nightmare), usually consists of frightening images and symbols relating to work, school, or relationships, and are often stress or anxiety induced. The threat here isn't necessarily to one's life, but to one's sense of self and self-confidence. We awake from these kinds of dreams with our hearts pounding, perspiring profusely and often crying or screaming. These kinds of nightmares tend to be the ones that we're relieved to realize "was only a dream!
In my experience, the most common types of nightmares are ones of either being chased or ones of being hunted down. One explanation: Being chased or stalked as prey are primal memories from our human collective unconscious, and they refer to primitive times when our ancestors were chased by wild animals. Back then, being caught meant certain death. Another possibility is that we feel unable to escape a situation that we feel we have no control over.
I've found, time and time again, that nightmares are our unconscious mind's way of getting our attention. If we don't pay attention to our dreams, or we haven't figured out the messages in past dreams, we'll get one heck of a nightmare that forces us to pay attention, and more often than not, force us to make the effort to understand what on earth that dream (nightmare) meant.
For more information on nightmares and how to deal with them, click here.
About The Author, Terry L. Gillis:
I have been researching and studying dreams for over 2 decades. What I have concluded is that dreams prepare us for what's ahead. By paying attention to our dreams and understanding their messages, we can decide on the best course of action to take to create the life we want.
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