an image of a woman scared of nightmares
Last Updated on June 6, 2022 by Peter

Nightmares: The Science And Psychology Behind It

Although we can easily find medical explanation for necessity of sleep, we still can’t explain the necessity of dreaming with the same certainty. Scientists and researches in the fields of psychology, neurology and medicine are still struggling to provide a certain answer to the question: Are dreams necessary?

We are familiar with the multiple theories about dreams’ beneficiary effects on our overall health, but we are still puzzled with the question are dreams products of our brain’s necessary coping mechanisms? Starting our discussion with these questions is crucial for our further defining and understanding of nightmares. Are nightmares a simple unpleasantry, or are they having some vital purpose for our mental health? Can understanding them shed more light on our personality type or mental skills? Let’s begin with making some more precise definition of the phenomena.

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    How do we define nightmares?

    We will begin with a modest definition: nightmares represent a type of dreams. This statement allows us to distinguish nightmares from night terrors, or any other sleeping disorder that does not necessarily occur during REM stage. Modern researches have shown that different types of disorder sleeping behaviors do not show relation to the REM stage occurrences, hence their nature, cause and manifestations deeply varies from brain activity during REM stage. Neurologists have isolated and studied distinctive brain activity that occurs during dreaming stage in person’s sleep. This way neurologists can recognize the moments of dream’s beginning and dream’s end by monitoring brain activity. These researches show that beside the general feeling of unpleasantry, nightmares and other sleep disorders, such as night terrors, show little, or no correlations at all. This brings us to conclusion that nightmares, even the types that can be recognized as sleep disorder, have far more in common with pleasant dreams than with night terrors. So, let’s direct our focus to the distinction between pleasant dreams and nightmares.
    nightmare vector graphics


    Dreams’ narrative form can momentarily indicate strong connection between dreaming and our cognitive abilities. In dreams we can remember real past experiences, react to the new information in a similar way that we would in wake time, and make logical conclusions about different situations. Dialogues in dreams can resemble the real-life communication. This shows that our dreaming mind doesn’t lack control over logical thinking and language processing abilities.

    Neurological studies have shown that parts of our brain that are responsible for our brains ability to process and memorize information are very active during REM stage, although, in a manner that differs from their activity during wake time. Conclusion is: dreaming mind has on its disposal different information, knowledge and experiences that are gathered during wake time. But, what is far more interesting question is: How dreaming mind uses and manipulates these materials?

    By closely analyzing effects that dreams’ storyline has on a dreamer, psychologists have come to mind blowing conclusions. The most important distinction between dreaming and different cognitive processes is that dreams manifest a strong persuading effect on a person’s mind. Dreams have a tendency to unfold their storyline by living their creator unaware of the fact that they are not reality. Our minds are capable of creating voluntary imaginative scenarios and experiences in our thoughts. Dreams however, realize themselves as involuntary phenomenon. This also stands even for lucid dreaming. Even if a dreamer is able to become aware that he is indeed dreaming, the mental state is still inventory induced.

    an image of a woman in a bed scared of nightmares

    Negative feelings

    Nightmares as a form of dreaming distinguish themselves as sleeping occurrences that cause temporarily state of fear, anxiety, stress or paranoia. Storylines in nightmares may vary and thus they are not a reliable factor in defining nightmares. For some people a certain figure, animal, action or statement that appears during dreaming can cause a strong feeling of fear. In the same time, for some other people the same appearance wouldn’t cause such a disturbing consequence. Psychologists have noticed that there are some nightmare scenarios that are common for the great number of people. Even in these types of nightmare scenarios psychologists could easily isolate many differences regarding various details that would vary from a dreamer to dreamer.

    Common nightmares

    Let’s take for an example the common nightmare scenario of someone chasing you. Some people would say that their nightmare didn’t offer any explanation on the subject who is chasing them. Others would say that they knew who or what was chasing them but would offer a different description of the chaser. They could also offer completely different description of the surroundings or sounds in the nightmare.

    It becomes obvious that the content of nightmares doesn’t offer a solution for defining them. Instead of the content, we should focus more on the negative consequences that are induced by them. Thus, the most efficient way to define nightmares is by analyzing the effect they have on the one’s feelings, behavior or even physiological changes.  

    Since the nature of nightmares’ content has little to do with distinguishing them from other types of dreams, we will focus more on their consequences. Person can still experience strong feelings of anxiety or fear moments after wakes up from a nightmare. Many people can verify that the feeling that they experience after being woken up, strongly resemble the one they experienced in the nightmare.

    a man falling in his nightmare

    Effects of nightmares

    Nightmares can cause faster heart rate and other physiological changes. They resemble the ones induced by the state of fear during wake time. Feeling frightened or anxious during a nightmare is completely normal. It especially doesn’t indicate that you are suffering from sleep disorder in any way.

    The crucial point where psychologists start to diagnose a nightmare as a serious problem is when their effect starts to prolong itself deeply into the already waken state. This issue occurs among some people who have tendency to wake up in a middle of the nightmare and continue to experience the emotions that they had during the nightmare. For some people negative emotions caused by a nightmare can stay present for hours or a whole day. These emotions can even start influencing person’s social behavior. In these cases, we can define nightmares as a type of disorder.

    Case of nightmares - control factor

    During different psychological studies on nightmares participants have described various scenarios that represented what is for them the most fighting or most disturbing nightmare experience. Some of the participants could identify the link between the storyline in their nightmares and their phobias, fears or anxieties that they experience in their awake, conscious mind. For others, this link wouldn’t exist, they couldn’t recognize any correlation between the cause of their fear in nightmares and similar or matching experience in their real-life.

    Since the factor of pleasantry becomes the main difference between dreams and nightmares we can ask now how can we make general definition of pleasantry, even though the pleasant for one person does not mean the same for the next? Same as in our definition between dreams and imagination or day-dreaming, factor of control rises as a key distinction.

    During a pleasant dream a dreamer doesn’t feel like the experience is slipping out of his control, while during the nightmare he does. This is why many psychologists see practicing of lucid dreaming as a treatment for nightmares. But what does this control factor mean for our understanding of nightmare causes?

    Even though different schools of psychology offer different answers to the question of meaning of nightmares and use different approaches to the interpretation of nightmares, they agree on one thing: nightmares do use the “material” from our wake mind. The question is, how do they use it?

    Survival instinct test

    There is one theory that suggest that nightmares are a way of our brain’s improving our survival skills. We know that many scientists believe that our cognitive processes of wake brain just continue in the sleeping brain. This way some dreams may be our brain’s method of understanding gained knowledge and collected information. But, this processing of information does not manifest itself as a cognitive process of wake mind, thus the puzzling nature of dreams.

    If some types of nightmares can be understood in the same way, that would mean that our brain only tries to process information that our wake mind failed to process, thus disturbing emotional consequences. This may be the explanation why people tend to recall their nightmares more vividly than their pleasant dreams. Our mind is shocked by a potential situation that it could not resolve.

    an image of a face in a nightmare

    Dealing with issues

    Medicine understands sleep as our body’s way to recover and improve its physiological functions, and some psychologists believe that dreams are also a type of mental improvement or recovery. In a way, nightmares can also be studied inside of these guidelines. They may represent our minds failure to deal with certain information. This way our mind connects to the unpleasant imagery as a method of identifying the problem. We know that people comprehend information by a principal of similarity and association. Our dreaming mind may use the same principal as well.

    Also, the important factor in understanding the dream logic is the idea that our mind needs to establish logical links, relations, and thus create a comprehensible form. We know that gestalt psychology offers us theories regarding this phenomenon. Since we need comprehensible form in our wake mind, we may also need it in our sleeping mind.

    Let’s return now to a control factor in dreaming. Feeling of losing control over situation in a nightmare corelates to the idea that nightmares are a manifestation of unprocessed experiences, emotions or memories. We are missing a complete, heathy, comprehensible form, so our mind starts to create disturbing, unclear and thus frightening form. What is not processed or understood starts to produce fear and unease. Nightmares are much more common among children that they are among adults, which can be explained by the control factor. Children deal with much more incomprehensible information than adults do, which results in more frequent nightmares.

    Individual approach to nightmare causes

    First step in identifying a cause of nightmares should be in understanding where one’s feeling of lacking control lies in wake life. People who experience a traumatic occurrence that unfolded beyond their control often endure a period of frequent nightmares. Psychological researches have shown a strong correlation between PTSD and nightmares. Though in this cases relation between control factor and real-life trauma can appear more obvious, we can identify this relation even with people who are not suffering from PTSD.

    Extreme stress

    Beside specific stressful occurrences such as losing a loved one, a job, getting injured, sick or changing environment, general state of mind that can lack specific negative occurrence can also result into experiencing nightmares. This opens a door into studding correlation between personality disorders and nightmares. If a person due to its personality disorder experiences difficulties in the social relations, this person can relive those difficulties through a nightmare. In cases like this, people with a certain personality disorder can suffer from serious nightmare issues. Through their dreams, these people can experience a disturbing and stressful reflection on their real-life struggles.

    an image of a man coping with a nightmare

    Psychology states that there is an existing link between auto-destructive behavior and nightmares. Although this link is often mentioned, it stays unclear whether nightmares induce desire towards self-harm or is it the other way around. Since we can recognize that type of desire towards auto-destructive behavior as an aggressive and often desperate attempt of regaining control, we can understand nightmares as an ambiguous phenomenon. Both are being induced by negative thoughts, and if left unresolved, worsens them in the same time.

    Nightmare treatment

    Dealing with emotional stress of various kinds can result in nightmare occurrences. Treating nightmare issue should begin with ones understanding of the cause of the emotional stress. However, the method of treatment varies by the seriousness of one’s trouble with nightmares. If experience from nightmares starts to influence and interfere with one’s life, that should be a serious sign.  Otherwise, if the unpleasantry caused by nightmares is not influencing more than dreamers temporary state of mind, it’s okay. If it’s not recognized by a dreamer as particularly disturbing, than some simple guidelines towards self-recovery may be the solution to the problem.

    Identifying issues

    If you are experiencing disturbing or repetitive nightmares you should try identifying the sources of your emotional stress. Treating certain personality disorder or emotional trauma can in the same time result in the improvement in dreaming experience. Deciphering a nightmare is a process that is individual for each person. You should ask yourself does the action that is the main source of fear in your nightmare resemble something from your real life. Does it remind of something?

    Many people can’t associate the action from a dream with something from their real-life. That’s because our dreaming mind can interpret real experiences in unexpected ways. Dream logic is usually an interpretation of a kind of metaphor for known impressions, experiences or interactions. You should use this method of analyzing especially if you are suffering from recurrent nightmares.

    Recurrent nightmares don’t have necessarily to represent singular unsolved emotional issue, but various issues as well. If your mind recognizes one type of nightmare as a successful warning it may use it again. Also, it can mean that your mind has identified a problem as a similar to the one you have already resolved. Recurrent nightmares can be understood as an association process in your dreaming vocabulary. If this is your case, you can ask yourself what is disturbing action from a nightmare metaphor for? This is a purely psychological approach to the problem.

    Main causes

    From the medical and neurological point of view nightmares can be linked to various factors that negatively influence our metabolic rhythm. Increasing our metabolism before going to bed can result in disturbing dreaming experience. Various changes to our sleeping habits or our biological rhythm can have the same effect. This means that by simply getting your routine in order you can improve your dreaming experience. Avoid eating before sleep, drinking caffeine drinks, and also try to exercise regularly. Moderate physical activity has numerous beneficiary factors on your overall health. Physical activity also affects your mental health and decreases nightmare frequency. There are some indicators that nightmares can be induced by negative physical experiences during sleeping. Our mind does not necessarily to produce a nightmare by establishing a link between emotional stress and dream vocabulary. The link can also be establishing between physical stress and dream imagery. Keep your sleeping environment as pleasant as you can. Control room temperature and comfort of sleeping surface. Other physical factors that can cause nightmares are:
    • sleep deprivation
    • disturbed sleep cycle
    • unhealthy diet
    • drug or alcohol abuse
    • illness
    • fever
    • pain caused by an injury
    • respiratory problems
    If you are struggling with resolving your nightmare issue try both psychological and medical approach towards reaching your goal. Practice dream deciphering and improving your physical health is the same time. Keep in mind that emotional stress and physical issues also go hand in hand.

    Beneficiary factor of nightmares

    Even though we can understand dreaming as mind’s coping process, we still can’t provide an answer to the question: Are dreams or nightmares necessary? An experiment showed that rats deprived of REM stage died after short period of time. However, even this doesn’t offer a straight answer to our previous question. Did rats die because of their irregular sleep cycle? Is REM stage of vital importance, but the dream imagery isn’t? And most importantly, does this effect of REM deprivation occur only among rats? Maybe it has nothing to do with how humans would react to it.

    an image of a happy woman

    Final thoughts

    Be it as it may, if you are experiencing an increasing nightmare issue you should try to identify their cause. Unpleasant dream experience can point to the real-life issues that you have been overlooking. Maybe some change in your life causes more emotional stress than you give it credit to. Due to a hectic lifestyle people tend to neglect effects of some negative experiences. Nightmares maybe the mind’s why of reminding the person that some occurrences demand more attention that they got. Same as a physical pain can point to an illness, nightmares also can be a type of warning. This is why you shouldn’t comprehend your nightmares as a completely negative phenomenon.

    Maybe your mind is using nightmares as an attempt to bring your attention towards some issue. Our body and mind instinctively strive towards positivity. This way a negative, unpleasant state, both physical or mental, can be an alarm, a call for help. Our body or mind don’t produce negative states for no reason. Inducing an emotional pain through nightmare may be the minds way of getting your attention.

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