Tarantula’s hairy legs crawl across your face. A sliding snake surrounds your legs. The fins circle around you, slowly getting closer and closer as you tread deep, muddy water.
Your teeth fall out of your mouth under an enamel shower. You are standing in front of a huge crowd only in your underwear …
Wake up. Sweat covers your face, your heart beats loudly in the darkness of your room and your disoriented senses struggle for balance. you are OK. You’re safe.
It was just a nightmare.
A nightmare thing
Nightmares can ruin you all night. They are invasive – living, frightening dreams that doom us to a late night purgatory, half asleep and shaken in the dark. Horror and panic are common contributors to a nightmare-laden brain, which can last as the mind reconciles its horrific sleep experience with a sudden return to reality.
Not uncommon. According to Sleep Education, it is estimated that 50-85% of adults in the U.S. have occasional nightmares, and up to 5% of Americans experience regular nightmares as a result of nightmares.
For the latter camp, consistent night episodes are a type of parasomnia or sleep disorder. From sleep paralysis to walking in sleepparasomnias can have a much more serious impact on sleep quality and waking life.
If you only have occasional nightmares – maybe once every fifteen days – it’s usually pretty easy to determine why. Common triggers of nightmares include stress, poor sleep hygiene, anxiety, adrenaline rush in scary movies, and illness (especially fever).
But when these nightmares begin to sabotage your quality of sleep and torment your mind during waking hours, then there is cause for concern.
Psychology student Gemma Simpson has experienced devastating nightmares for more than ten years, which routinely affect her sleep and daily life.
“Sleep is always worse right after a nightmare,” she said. “They’re always vivid, so I tend to inadvertently marinate them for the next few days until the trauma fades a bit.”
He describes his nightmares as rarely sensible and mostly traumatic, with violence and vivid experiences as the norm. This can be an incredibly contrasting topic.
“I once dreamed that my dad beat me with an aluminum baseball bat in an art gallery,” she said. “The art gallery was very specific and weird … I also had nightmares about sexual assault and violence.”
As a psychology student, Simpson is well acquainted with Freud’s theory of dreams, in which they represent unconscious desires and feelings that the brain needs to process.
“All your memory consolidation happens in a dream,” she said. “I think it is most likely that in the days when I have nightmares I would see something that warned me of my traumas, even if I hadn’t thought about it then.
According to sleep psychologist Dr. Dana Ford of the Better Sleep Clinic in Auckland, trying to interpret dreams after waking up can only be helpful if you feel comforting.
“The general interpretation is that something is wrong and that’s why you have nightmares, so I would probably stick to that level,” he said. “Because you generally see dreaming, don’t you? It’s pretty pointless.”
“Maybe you’re wasting your time on something that isn’t really that important. If it’s something that’s recurring about the trauma you’ve been through, you probably don’t need an interpretation.”
What is actually going on in your brain?
According to Healthline, the human brain generally goes through four phases of sleep during the night.
These phases differ in the different activities of the brain and body and indicate the depth of sleep that a person experiences – usually measured by electroencephalogram or EEG.
The first phase consists of the brain and body slowly falling asleep – your heart rate is regulated, your system begins to calm down and this usually takes up to five minutes. The second phase is light sleep, where you are located, but you have not completely sunk into the depth of sleep needed to start tissue growth, repair the system and regenerate cells.
The third phase is the deep sleep phase, known as slow wave sleep. The body is completely relaxed, delta brain waves are present and there is no eye movement. Your body regenerates cells, your immune system strengthens, and your heart rate is the slowest.
Finally, the fourth stage is what is known as fast eye movement sleep or REM sleep. Here you can dream, while your brain activity escalates and your eyes move quickly. For most people, limbs become paralyzed while sleeping.
It usually takes up to an hour and a half of sleep before you fall into REM sleep, so while it may feel like you’re dreaming as soon as your head hits the pillow, you probably aren’t.
“For the average person, that means nightmares are more likely to happen in the second half of the night,” Ford said.
Nightmares will appear only in REM sleep, where the mind is most active. For people who do not experience the element of limb paralysis in the fourth stage, this is also when they could sleepwalkers or pretending to be their dreams – although this is less common. Others experience paralysis without sleep part, which in its own way can be intimidating.
“Basically what we do is process emotions,” Ford said, “what we’re probably seeing is someone who’s potentially hyper-excited, so their level of excitement or sympathetic nervous system is activated or activated, and it’s then bleeding into their sleep and nightmares. “
Nightmares against night terrors
Although similar in name, nightmares and nightmares are not interchangeable experiences.
When I was a teenager, I looked after children a lot. One night, I was covering a babysitter shift with a new family. The night looked good, until they went to bed. After forty minutes of sleep, a 9-year-old child screamed out of the bedroom without warning.
His eyes were wide open, watching me intently as he continued to emit screams that chilled his blood. Although it didn’t seem that way, he was still asleep.
What my parents did not warn me about before leaving was that their child often experiences night terrors, which are clearly separated from nightmares and are associated with confusion, screaming and other vocalizations.
“Both are parasomnias, but they occur at different stages of sleep,” Ford said of the phenomenon. “So night terrors will generally happen in a dreamless, or non-REM dream, and nightmares will happen predominantly in a REM dream.”
This means that night terrors usually occur earlier in the sleep cycle. Night terrors are mostly experienced by children between the ages of 4 and 12 and are usually something from which children simply grow up.
One of the key differences between nightmare disorders and night terrors is a lack of memory. A sleeper who wakes up from a bad dream will generally have an abstract memory of the most important features of his dream – perhaps a particularly frightening figure or feeling – while those affected by night terrors usually wake up and do not remember their experience at all.
As a result, night terrors can be far more disturbing for those around the sleeper. For parents, hearing your child scream in the middle of the night is what horror movies are made of.
A nightmare on every street
One, two, Freddy’s coming for you.
In the world of cinema, nightmares are synonymous with danger. From Nightmare on Elm Street to Boogeyman, these films have not only solidified their place in pop culture, but have often been the target as a reason for nightmares in the real world.
Healthline suggests that if you are prone to internalizing sensitive material, you may not be the best candidate to watch horror movies because of the effect they can have on your sleep and mental health. But some people absolutely love the excitement and fear of the genre – so what is it, really?
From a psychological perspective, horror movies and thrillers stimulate the production of adrenaline in a controlled environment – one that lies in the hands of the viewer to start, but also to stop.
“One of the criteria for diagnosis is that a nightmare is a kind of threat to your physical integrity. So, in that sense, the content of a nightmare is very dangerous for the person who has it,” Ford said.
The problem is that with the advent of better technology and effects, movies look more realistic and threatening than ever before – even when we watch fantastic creatures like zombies and monsters.
If you are someone who has mental health problems such as anxiety, depression and especially PTSD, the experience of watching a horror movie can certainly contribute to your chances of having a nightmare.
“I get away with horror movies where people make horror movies,” Simpson said. “If it’s a fictional creature, then I’m usually good, but as a rule, I don’t watch horror movies because of the probability of nightmares.”
“My brain is like, ‘I know monsters and aliens (probably) aren’t real,’ so I can justify that, but if they’re humans it’s just a little too realistic.”
Given that this is the case, it is no wonder that nightmares have cemented such a basis in horror and thriller pop culture – the fight or flight reflex driven by horror movies is the same reflex we feel when we wake up from a nightmare that threatens our physical integrity.
But for many, watching nightmares played out in a movie – mostly with a happy ending – can feel like a safer, controlled alternative.
One of the most comforting – albeit disturbing – ideas about nightmares in pop culture comes from the Marvel film Dr. Strange: Into The Multiverse Of Madness, which claims that when you dream, you experience a window into the life you lead in an alternate universe.
In doing so, he suggests that all dreams and nightmares could be windows into a multiverse – abstract universes with different rules, experiences and modalities. Regardless of scientific support, the recent trend of the multiverse makes it a theory that offers some comfort.
So, the next time you have a severe nightmare, consider that maybe somewhere – in some universe – there is a version of you stuck facing a twelve-foot tarantula while dressed in your underwear.
But it’s not you.
It’s just a dream.