why do i sometimes have dreams and other times nightmares?

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What is a nightmare?
A nightmare is a very distressing dream which usually forces at least partial awakening. The dreamer may feel any number of disturbing emotions in a nightmare, such as anger, guilt, sadness or depression, but the most common feelings are fear and anxiety. Nightmare themes may vary widely from person to person and from time to time for any one person. Probably the most common theme is being chased. Adults are commonly chased by an unknown male figure whereas children are commonly chased by an animal or some fantasy figure.
Who has nightmares?

Just about everyone has them at one time or another. The majority of children have nightmares between the ages of three or four and seven or eight. These nightmares appear to be a part of normal development, and do not generally signal unusual problems. Nightmares are less common in adults, though studies have shown that they too may have nightmares from time to time. About 5-lO% have nightmares once a month or more frequently.
What causes nightmares?
There are a number of possibilities. Some nightmares can be caused by certain drugs or medications, or by rapid withdrawal from them, or by physical conditions such as illness and fever. The nightmares of early childhood likely reflect the struggle to learn to deal with normal childhood fears and problems. Many people experience nightmares after they have suffered a traumatic event, such as surgery, the loss of a loved one, an assault or a severe accident. The nightmares of combat veterans fall into this category. The content of these nightmares is typically directly related to the traumatic event and the nightmares often occur over and over. Other people experience nightmares when they are undergoing stress in their waking lives, such as difficulty or change on the job or with a loved one, moving, pregnancy, financial concerns, etc. Finally, some people experience frequent nightmares that seem unrelated to their waking lives. These people tend to be more creative, sensitive, trusting and emotional than average.
What can be done about nightmares?
It really depends on the source of the nightmare. To rule out drugs, medications or illness as a cause, discussion with a physician is recommended. It is useful to encourage young children to discuss their nightmares with their parents or other adults, but they generally do not need treatment. If a child is suffering from recurrent or very disturbing nightmares, the aid of a therapist may be required. The therapist may have the child draw the nightmare, talk with the frightening characters, or fantasize changes in the nightmare, in order help the child feel safer and less frightened .

The nightmares which repeat a traumatic event reflect a normal psychic healing process, and will diminish in frequency and intensity if recovery is progressing. If after several weeks no change is noted, consultation with a therapist is advisable.

Adults' nightmares offer the same opportunity as other dreams for self-exploration and understanding. With practice, the dreamer can often learn to decode the visual and symbolic language of the dream and to see relationships between the dream and waking life. The nightmare by nature is distressing, however, and the dreamer may need to reduce the distress before looking more closely at the meaning of the dream. Some techniques for reducing the distress of the nightmare include writing it down, drawing or painting it, talking in fantasy to the characters, imaging a more pleasant ending, or simply reciting it over several times. The more relaxed the dreamer can be while using these techniques the better. A number of good books are available for learning how to understand dreams. Alternately, the dreamer may wish to ask a therapist for assistance.

Sometimes nightmares are related to intense stress or emotional conflict that is best dealt with in consultation with a therapist. One should not hesitate to consult a therapist when in doubt.

It may be surprising to learn that many people are not really disturbed by their nightmares, even though the experiences themselves are distressing. Research has shown that about half of people who have quite frequent nightmares regard them as fascinating and creative acts of their minds, and either view them as very interesting or dismiss them as "just dreams". This illustrates the fact that one's attitude toward nightmares is quite important.

What about night terrors?
Night terrors are something quite different. Nightmares tend to occur after several hours of sleep, screaming or moving about is very uncommon, the dream is usually elaborate and intense, and the dreamer realizes soon after wakening that he or she has had a dream. Night terrors, on the other hand, occur during the first hour or two of sleep, loud screaming and thrashing about are common, the sleeper is hard to awaken and usually remembers no more than an overwhelming feeling or a single scene, if anything. Nightmares and night terrors arise from different physiological stages of sleep. Children who have night terrors also may have a tendency to sleepwalk and/or urinate in bed. The causes of night terrors are not well understood. Children usually stop having them by puberty. They may be associated with stress in adults. A consultation with a physician may be useful if the night terrors are frequent or especially disturbing.


What's happening when I'm asleep?
Scientists have found patterns in how much brain and muscle activity is taking place when we sleep, and divided the time we spend asleep into five stages. Stage one sleep only lasts for one to seven minutes, and is when we are feeling drowsy, but can still be easily awoken. As we go into stage two sleep, it becomes harder to wake us; we spend about 50% of our time asleep in this state. Then follows the deepest slumber in the third and fourth stages. At this time our heart and respiratory rates decrease, and our body temperature drops. During these stages, sleepwalkers do their rounds.

The last stage of sleep is known as Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep; the time for dreaming. We typically have three to five periods of REM sleep per night, occurring every hour or two. During REM sleep, the main muscle groups of the body are paralysed, and only smaller muscles like fingers, toes or facial muscles can move or twitch. The paralysis might be our body's way of making sure that we don't act out what's happening in our dreams.

Why do I dream?
Although science has found out a lot about how our brains work during dreaming, we still know very little about why. Sigmund Freud thought that dreams were a way of fulfilling our wishes, while Carl Jung thought dreams made up for parts of the psyche undeveloped by daytime activities. Recently, it has been suggested that dreaming has a role in how we develop and learn. Experiments have shown that memory is better after a good night's sleep, so doing an all-nighter before exams is not a good idea.

Some scientists believe that dreaming could be the body's way of sorting out which memories to store and which to delete, and to compare new experiences with old memories. Others claim that dreams are a subconscious effort to solve problems the sleeper may not even be aware of.

So why do I sometimes have nightmares?
Solving problems isn't what most of us will associate with nightmares, but some believe that these nightly frights are signals about things that are wrong, or need facing up to. Although dreams can be intense and often include emotions of anxiety and fear, a bad dream becomes a nightmare when, because of the intensity of emotions, we wake up.

Nightmares are often long or elaborate and can be reoccurring. Alcoholics and drug addicts, and people who have experienced trauma, are more likely to have recurrent nightmares.

Can nightmares be avoided?
If you ask your grandmother, she is likely to say eating cheese will give you nightmares. Although this is not scientific, it isn't recommended to eat large meals before going to bed, as your digestive system will not be able to function properly.
Ensure your sleeping environment is suitable, and limit alcohol or drugs.
For a more psychological approach, trying to master lucid dreaming might be worth a shot. This is a way of making yourself aware that you are only dreaming, and trying to control your dreams.
Can there be other reasons for nightly frights?
Some people experience extreme feelings of fear in their sleep. As opposed to nightmares, which happen during REM sleep, night terrors or 'incubus attacks' occur during stage four of sleep. Unlike nightmares, which we often remember as movie-like dreams, those who suffer from night terrors can rarely explain what they were dreaming of, other than that they experienced an extreme sense of fear. However, when they do remember, spiders, snakes, animals, people, or an evil presence in the room are often featured.

Some sufferers continue to hallucinate when they wake, which can cause some to become violent, either as a response to their dreams, or in an attempt to run away. The cause of night terrors is thought to be increased brain activity, or a chemical reaction that makes the brain 'misfire'. For many, medical treatment is necessary to help people cope.

Do my dreams mean anything?
People have tried to interpret dreams since 3000 BC, when dreams were recorded on stone tablets. Roman emperors often brought dream interpreters to the battlefield, but in the 19th century, dreaming somewhat lost its status, and it was believed they stemmed from anxiety or indigestion. Now we know that if we are woken up during the REM stage, we are more likely to remember our dreams. This is one of the reasons it is often easier to remember nightmares, because we wake while still in the REM phase.

Most of us only remember about one per cent of our dreams, but there are a few common themes such as being naked, taking an exam, falling or flying, missing a body part (often teeth falling out) or searching or being chased. Sigmund Freud, who revolutionised the study of dreams, was preoccupied with their sexual content. He believed that long, slender or elongated objects represented the male phallus, while any cavity or receptacle (bowl, caves, etc) denoted the female genitalia.

Interpreting dreams can be great fun, and some websites offers online dictionaries. However, there is little scientific evidence that suggest dreams are anything but just that, dreams.

Written by Ingunn Handagard


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