The stuff of nightmares
Could that bad dream be linked to your mental wellbeing? We explore the reality of those scary sleep intruders
Want to sleep tight every night? We decode what those bad dreams mean
Nightmares are typically associated with monsters-under-the-bed fright as kids, but being old enough to get served alcohol doesn’t necessarily mean you’re immune – especially when you’re female. “It’s a robust finding in sleep literature that women experience more nightmares than men; interestingly, the gender difference only begins to emerge at adolescence,” says Dr Bryony Sheaves, research clinical psychologist at the University of Oxford’s Sleep and Circadian Neuroscience Institute.
“Initial findings suggest women may remember more of their dreams generally, so they are more likely to retain or recollect their nightmares. But women are also more prone to experience feelings of anxiety and worry, and worrying is one of the best predictors of regular nightmares.” This suggests what plays out while you’re asleep is directly linked to things you’ve struggled to deal with during your waking hours.
WHEN DREAMS MIMIC LIFE
While the link between nightmares and stress is well established, a growing body of research is contributing to the theory that recurrent nightmares could be indicative of something more. Nightmares are a common symptom of PTSD – so common, they are among the criteria for diagnosis. And in one of the most extensive studies on the subject, published in the journal Scientific
Reports last year, psychologists from the University of Turku in Finland concluded that nightmares should be considered an early indicator of any mental health disorder.
“Our research group has shown that people who experience more frequent and distressing nightmares are more likely to score higher on scales for anxiety, paranoia, depression and hallucinations,” explains Sheaves. This doesn’t mean that all people who suffer from nightmares have, or will develop, mental health difficulties – just that the odds of doing so are slightly higher.
YOUR SLEEP SOLUTIONS
This all leads to the question: how do you know when your nightmare is more than a nightmare? First, let’s differentiate them from other nocturnal afflictions. “Nightmares are typically defined as [being] in the last third of the night and cause significant distress,” explains sleep researcher Dr Michelle Carr. “They differ from other forms of sleep disruptions, like night terrors or confusional arousals, in that you quickly become awake and alert, with certain physical symptoms such as a racing heart, sweating or breathing quickly.” Those intense physical symptoms only serve to exacerbate the fear nightmares produce.
Experts agree the occasional nightmare shouldn’t be cause for concern, and that you need to seek help only when they become so frequent that they disturb your kip on a regular basis. But if you’re worried, it’s worth chatting to your GP.
In other sleep news: a new talking therapy, called imagery rehearsal therapy, is also in the testing stages. This form of cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT) involves working with a specialist to use your imagination to write more positive alternative endings to your ’mares and then regularly rehearsing those endings. Sheaves is researching if this, coupled with traditional CBT, could help nightmare sufferers – and so far, so positive. Trying to control your moods and stress hormone levels is also helpful, as is a decent wind-down routine before lights out.
If your nightmares continue but happen only every now and then, it may not actually be such a bad thing. Experts agree that they can be a useful tool in highlighting any distress in your waking life that you might otherwise have been oblivious to, or chosen (subconsciously or otherwise) to bury, and give you the impetus to sort things out. So once the jitters have ceased, you can rest easy mate. In short: the odd nightmare isn’t something worth losing sleep over.
Picture this: You’re walking down a dark alley. You hear footsteps. You try to run, but your limbs feel heavy. Your heart’s racing, your blood’s pumping, you can hear yourself scream. And then … you open your eyes, safe in your bed. But it all felt so real.