Cheese vs stress: what is the cause of your nightmares?

You wake up terrified in the middle of the night. A monster lurking in the shadows turned into your boss shouting at you in a room full of people, then a blood lusting clown started to chase you with a machete? And then, if it wasn’t bad enough already, it turned out it was all tied to an awful event that really happened to you in the past? Yes, you can be sure that what you experienced was a nightmare, no doubt about that. But if you are wondering why it happened to you, the answer might not be as obvious.

Know your enemy

Nightmares, just as mental disorders, are very often a taboo. Even though we acknowledge their general existence, our very own problems aren’t the first thing we want to talk about with others. What’s more, we all experience nightmares a bit differently. There is no prevailing definition of what exactly a nightmare is. Generally speaking, they are bad dreams that are so distressful and scary, that they can wake us up and even prevent from going back to sleep.

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Personal differences in experiencing nightmares come from the fact that we all have very different fears, memories, and stressors. Moreover, bad dreams are not only conditioned by mental factors. They also have a distinct physical dimension. Since we tend to experience more nightmares as kids, age is a factor too. In fact, it’s rather significant. Many studies show that on average 20% children experience at least one nightmare a week, whereas 8% adults report to have them that often. Furthermore, symptoms of certain mental conditions such as  depression, borderline personality disorder, and PTSD, often include frequent nightmares.

Could ice cream bring you nightmares?

It’s no news to anybody that it isn’t healthy to eat a lot before going to sleep. Indigestion caused by overeating might prevent you from falling asleep and make you wake up more often during the night. This disruption of your sleep cycle makes you more likely to wake up during your REM sleep. And since most nightmares occur in this stage, your memory of them is much more vivid and detailed

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Some foods, like cheese, for example, can also contain substances that influence your sleeping brain in an unusual way. Cheese, ice cream, or any other high-fat food cause more brain waves to appear, often followed by more lively dreams.  Spicy food can elevate your body temperature which, same as fever, also effects in sleep pattern disruption. You can, of course, try to avoid those negative effects by eating your chili or pizza at least two hours before going to bed. Yet a safer solution would be choosing foods that are lighter and more sleep-friendly. Adding foods containing amino acid (eg. milk, lean meat or peanuts) to your supper is definitely a good idea, as they make you more sleepy and less prone to sleep pattern disruption.

Nightmares are also a common effect of taking some types of drugs or, quite the contrary, substance withdrawal. If you take any medication containing beta-blockers, nightmares are probably not uncommon to you. Despite its name, having a nightcap isn’t likely to make your bad dreams go away either.

Are you re-living your stress by night?

Still, it is not always possible to blame your nightmare on a fatty burger or a pint of beer. Usually, their causes are much more complex and not that easy to identify. Your personal traits, the amount of stress we have to deal with and your resistance to it are definitely very important factors here

A difficult job, exams and unpleasant life events can easily disturb your sleep patterns. Your daily worries are not always easy to forget, and can also reflect on your dreams. That’s why it’s not uncommon to ‘re-live’ stressful events during the night. Of course, it’s a vicious circle – if stress haunts us even when we’re asleep, we don’t really get the chance to ever get rid of it.

An extreme example of stress inducing nightmares can be seen in the case of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) sufferers. It’s a mental disorder that results from being exposed to a traumatic experience such as war, an accident or any form of abuse. Flashbacks in form of nightmares are a very common and burdensome symptom. They’re not just terrifying and painful, but also dangerous as they can trigger suicide attempts.

Interestingly, apart from relation to stress, there’s a link between creativity and nightmares. Imaginative people are generally more prone to experiencing bad dreams. Nightmares are caused by our perception of the stimuli coming from the world. And creativity can easily be equaled to more vulnerability to our surroundings. It might also be the reason why children tend to have and remember more nightmares than adults.

Don’t fall in a nightmares’ trap

Dismissing frequent nightmares as ‘just a few bad dreams’ is never a good idea. Their consequences can have a catastrophic impact on our lives and wellbeing. Minor effects include tiredness and drowsiness. While that doesn’t sound especially scary, fatigue usually decreases your focus and mental performance. In the long term, it can seriously impede any work or tasks you carry out during the day. Of course, your body doesn’t stay unaffected as lack of sleep makes you physically weaker, too.

As for some of the more serious effects, nightmares can lead to serious sleep deprivation and insomnia. If our dreams are especially scary and distressing, you might even start to feel like it’s better to avoid sleep altogether. The overall quality of your life will lower significantly and it might be really hard for you to go back to your previous health. Any existing mental illnesses can be worsened and new ones can be triggered. As mentioned before, in extreme cases, nightmares can even trigger suicidal thoughts.

The most important thing to do when dealing with frequent nightmares is not to ignore them. It is crucial to identify the reasons why you’re experiencing them and try to minimize their impact. This might include a slight change of habits, introducing some preventive care or even visiting a doctor. You should not allow the daytime stress or any other problems interfere with your sleeping pattern. Good night’s rest is absolutely essential to living a good, healthy life.

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References

  • Belicki, K. (1992). Nightmare frequency versus nightmare distress: Relations to psychopathology and cognitive style. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 101(3), 592-597. doi:10.1037/0021-843x.101.3.592
  • Simor, P., Horváth, K., Gombos, F., Takács, K. P., & Bódizs, R. (2012). Disturbed dreaming and sleep quality: altered sleep architecture in subjects with frequent nightmares. European Archives of Psychiatry and Clinical Neuroscience, 262(8), 687-696.
  • Spoormaker, V. I., Schredl, M., & Bout, J. V. (2006). Nightmares: from anxiety symptom to sleep disorder. Sleep Medicine Reviews, 10(1), 19-31.
  • WebMD. (2014, August 28). Nightmares in Adults. Retrieved from http://www.webmd.com/sleep-disorders/guide/nightmares-in-adults