Unsweet Dreams: Nightmares and Health

You’re naked. In front of people you know and respect (and all your archenemies). Everyone is pointing and laughing in that over-the-top, full-body way that you imagine laugh track audiences do. You are humiliated beyond belief and take a step back, wishing the ground would swallow you whole. Oh, and there was a surprise staircase behind you which you didn’t know about earlier. Off you go, tumbling into the vast, unending abyss—WHAM! You’re awake.

How’s your pulse—probably speedwalking, right? A little out of breath? Unnerved? Slightly sweaty? Maybe you gotta pee. You should probably take care of that, first.

According to the Mayo Clinic,

Nightmares are common. They may begin in childhood and tend to decrease after about age 10. However, some people have them as teens or adults, or throughout their lives.

Until age 13, boys and girls have nightmares in equal numbers. At age 13, nightmares become more prevalent in girls than boys.

At 24, I can safely say I look to be one of those people who will have nightmares throughout my life. It’s okay to be jealous. WebMD lists several reasons why adults might experience this free horror show, and some of the reasons might be surprising.

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) also commonly causes people to experience chronic, recurrent nightmares.

Other causes include stress, anxiety, depression, fevered illness, withdrawal from drugs and medication (whether prescription or recreational) and sleep deprivation. Surprisingly enough, late-night snacking also made the list! According to the Mayo Clinic:

For some, eating right before bed—and the resulting boost in metabolism and brain activity—leads to nightmares.

Although for the most part, having nightmares appears to be one of those relatively harmless quirks of living, chronic nightmares can be problematic for your health. Particularly for those who already suffer from some level of anxiety or depression, nightmares can cause them further distress and psychological ill effects. Also, though there hasn’t been enough research done, nor is the relationship fully understood, there is some correlation between nightmares and suicide. When nightmares lead to sleep deprivation, you’re looking at a host of other issues including heart disease and obesity.

Though it might seem new-age and trendy, deep breathing exercises before bed have been proven to help. This is not to say they eliminate nightmares, but if you’re someone who suffers from the after hours acid trip often, try it and see if it lessens the frequency. If you’re having the same recurring nightmare every time, rehearsing a better ending before bed can actually lead to a different ending in your sleep. Again, I know this can sound kooky, but when you go to sleep and repeatedly see your loved ones slaughtered, suddenly, a few minutes of coaching your mind to understand that “it turns out, we were just playing zombies!” seems totally worth it. Harvard psychologist Deirdre Barrett first described this “image rehearsal” technique in her 1996 book Trauma and Dreams. Research has concluded that this technique is effective in reducing the occurrence of nightmares.

So the next time you find your mental faculties trapped in an abandoned carnival late at night and that giant clown with razor teeth and harpy claws riding a unicycle of death while wielding a bloodied machete advances upon you, just think about a positive outcome instead.

Mayo Clinic: http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/nightmares/DS01010
WebMD: http://www.webmd.com/sleep-disorders/guide/nightmares-in-adults
Trauma and Dreams: http://www.amazon.com/Trauma-Dreams-Deirdre-Barrett/dp/0674006909
Case series utilizing exposure, relaxation, and rescripting therapy: impact on nightmares, sleep quality, and psychological distress: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15984916

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