The stuff of night­mares

Could that bad dream be linked to your men­tal well­be­ing? We ex­plore the re­al­ity of those scary sleep in­trud­ers

Women's Health Australia - - CONTENTS - By Lizzy Den­ing

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.


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.


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.

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