One of the things that people often ask me about is nightmares and how to resolve them or prevent them from happening. Recently I did an interview about nightmares with a dream researcher and here are some of the questions and answers we explored.

What sorts of things or events can cause a person to have a nightmare?
The sorts of things or events that can cause us to have nightmares are things or events from our waking life that are causing emotional tension. Much of our dream life is created by unresolved tensions in our waking life, but nightmares tend to highlight these tensions more powerfully. We may experience nightmares as a result of traumatic experiences in our waking life, but these tend to form the minority of nightmare content. What usually generates nightmares are often seemingly trivial incidents from our waking life. After experiencing this seemingly trivial incident, we will dream about it, but unless we are attending to our dreams, we will probably ignore it. Our unconscious will respond by repeatedly turning up the volume and brightness of the dream until we are forced to take notice of it. Usually the tension in our waking life that has caused the nightmare to build up is easily resolved once it has been identified.

What functions occur in the brain while having a nightmare?
The main functions that occur in the brain during a nightmare are similar to those that occur during REM sleep. Our blood pressure rises and our brain activity increases. Our brain waves cohere into alpha patterns, similar to when we are awake and usually at a higher level, showing our intensity of engagement with the nightmare. Our brain stem releases the amino acid glycine into our motoneurons to prevent our anti gravity muscles in our legs and arms from moving. This self induced paralysis stops us from physically acting out our nightmare experiences.

Are nightmares more prevalent in men or in women?
Women tend to report more nightmares than men do. In my experience, about a third of dreams reported by women can be classed as nightmares, compared with about a quarter of those reported by men. Women are often better at remembering their dreams, so this may skew any statistical findings. Nightmares are also more prevalent in people who are empathic and sensitive, regardless of gender. As women tend to be more aware of their emotions and readily absorb the emotional significance of waking situations, they are more likely to experience nightmares.

Are kids or adults more likely to have nightmares?
Nightmares often reflect a loss of control or power in waking life, so children are more likely to have nightmares as they try and resolve their lack of power and control in waking life. However, many adults have an inner child that has been neglected and this can often feel powerless and out of control in adult life, leading to unresolved emotional tension and subsequent nightmares.

What treatments are available for people who suffer from traumatic nightmares?
There are a variety of tranquilisers and sedatives available but these tend to lower the person’s general level of arousal so they find it difficult to get aroused by anything and so become depressed. The best treatment for traumatic nightmares is some dreamwork with a qualified and experienced dream psychologist. However, although many people claim to be dream experts, very few actually are, so it can be difficult to find someone who can really help.

Can nightmares cause a person to have psychological problems?
Nightmares may be a sign of impending and actual psychological problems rather than causing the problems. Our dreams and nightmares are an authentic reflection of what is going on for us in our waking lives and so if we are facing psychological challenges, we are more likely to experience nightmares. Working with our nightmares can help us to resolve any psychological problems rather than causing them.

What can be done to prevent nightmares?
The fundamental cure for preventing nightmares is to resolve the emotional tensions caused by experiences from waking life. There are a variety of ways to do this and the simplest and most natural is to be aware of our dream life and to welcome it and explore it. If we ignore our unconscious awareness, it will constantly try and bring our attention to it until it builds up into an experience of nightmare proportions! By working with our dreams we can see what is really happening in our waking life and use it to grow healthily and powerfully.

About how many dreams can a person have during one sleep period?
On average, most people sleep for between 6 and 8 hours per night. During that time they will experience a number of sleep cycles that last for about 90 minutes each. During each of these 90 minute cycles, most people dream for about 15 to 20 minutes, so everyone is dreaming for somewhere between 60 and 100 minutes per night. Although it depends how disturbed the person’s sleep is and how often they wake, everyone will have at least 4 or 5 main dreams per night, and possibly up to 12 that they can coherently recall.

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