Why Do People Have Bad Dreams?
Waking up from a horrible dream can be a frightening, disconcerting, or an unnerving experience, but it’s something everyone goes through every now and then. But why do people have bad dreams? There’s a lot we don’t fully understand about the processes that take place when we are asleep, but in this article we will explore what is known about dreams, and the reasons why bad ones happen.
What Are Dreams?
When you are asleep there are a number of processes that take place within your body to rest and recuperate so you are ready to go in the morning. All of your muscles take the opportunity to repair themselves, but the most active part during the downtime is your brain. You transition through five different stages of sleep, with the one that’s most associated with dreaming being REM, or rapid eye movement, sleep.
This stage sees the highest level of brain activity, particularly in the areas that deal with visual processing, sensory input, and areas related to activity that takes place during a dream. If you dream of faces, for example, then the part of the brain linked to facial perception becomes active.
What Happens When You Dream?
It has long been theorized what is actually going on here. Freud believed that dreams are an insight into the subconscious mind, and many studies have shown a correlation between recent experiences and thoughts, and the events that take place in the dream world.
The general consensus is that when we are asleep our brains are sifting through the information they have collected and decide what to store in long term memory, and what can be forgotten. It is thought that dreams are a side effect or a fundamental part to this process that help us to organize it all.
We dream about 8 times per night but, because most of these are fragments, we don’t remember the vast majority of them. Typically a dream will only be remembered if it is particularly intense, or if we wake up quickly from REM sleep when the dream is still fresh in the mind.
What Does it Mean When You Have a Bad Dream?
The processes taking place in the brain during sleep aren’t fully understood, so there are numerous explanations of why bad dreams occur. The truth is likely a mixture of all of the ideas, because nightmares can show up seemingly at random.
Children have more bad dreams than adults, but even when you’re older you’re likely to experience them occasionally. One study found that 85% of adults had a nightmare in the past year, between 8% and 29% had them on a monthly basis, and between 2% and 6% have them weekly.
Those who believe that dreams act as an insight into the unconscious make the link between bad dreams and things like stress and anxiety. This makes sense, because quite often a bad dream will include elements that a person is trying to deal with in their waking life, and can feel as if the brain is trying to work through the problems. Bad dreams can, therefore, mean that you are having some troubles, and can be a sign that you need to confront them.
What Can Cause Bad Dreams?
Bad dreams can also happen as a result of certain chemicals being present in the body that cause a higher level of brain activity. Eating late night snacks, for example, can increase your metabolism and encourage the brain to be a lot more active.
Drugs that change brain chemistry have also been shown to induce nightmares, with users of antidepressants and recreational drugs often reporting higher numbers of them.
How To Not Have Bad Dreams
If you are experiencing frequent bad dreams and are becoming concerned about them you should speak with your doctor to see if they can offer you some assistance. If you want to try some techniques first, though, the best thing you can start by doing is ensuring you are getting plenty of sleep in regular patterns.
Try going to bed at the same time each night and waking up at the same time as well. You should also drink plenty of water, and not have any meals within two hours of going to bed, nor should you drink alcohol, smoke, or take any drugs (other than those prescribed by your doctor) within the same period.
Bad dreams can also happen as a result of stress and anxiety, so dealing with those issues in your life will help you avoid unpleasant experiences at night. In these instances the dreams should be seen as a symptom not a cause, so you need to deal with the triggers outright.
The Bottom Line
Dreams can be amazing experiences, but they can also be frightening when they take a turn for the worse. Bad dreams can seriously affect how well you are able to sleep, and the knock on effects can be detrimental to how you feel the following day. Why do people have bad dreams? While it’s not fully understood why, a number of methods have been developed to help people deal with them, which if followed can make sleeping a relaxing time once more.