Bad dreams – the terrifying, vivid visions that leave you sweating in lingering discomfort. Having one bad dream from time to time happens to all of us. But some people are haunted by these frightening images night after night. Before you lose hope – you should know that the night and its mares can be tamed. How? The answer is science.
Let’s start with the basics because sleep has a unique construction that you may not even be aware of. During the first part of the night, we’re in deep NREM sleep. The second part is most often devoted to REM sleep, when nightmares, and all dreams, appear. Therefore most bad dreams happen in the early morning hours.
Bad dreams are developed by the same parts of the brain as any other dreams. Even on polysomnography – the most accurate, clinical method of measuring sleep stages – nightmares look identical to regular dreams. That’s why we need to go deeper to unfold the process of bad dreams nascency. Why are some dreams so dreadful?
Dreams gone bad
Dreams may not have the significance we seek, but REM sleep is deeply significant for our well-being. It’s the weirdest sleep stage of them all – REM’s similarity to full wakefulness is striking. Have you seen “Stranger Things” on Netflix? If so, you’re familiar with the term Upside Down – meaning an alternate reality that’s like a mirror reflection of our own. So is REM – almost a perfect replica of a wakeful brain. But we know it’s far from wakeful – it’s unconscious, illogical, and the body is paralyzed, although the motor cortex lights up as if the body were moving. So the REM world is as close to a mirror reflection of reality as it can be, if you bear in mind that Stranger Things’ Upside Down can be a hostile place, and REM manifests both – the good and bad experiences.
Dreaming serves many purposes, but in the context of bad dreams, the most important is dealing with the emotional side of memories.
Think about it – our lives can get tough, not all kittens and roses. And yet somehow, we resiliently get up every morning and keep going. This process wouldn’t be that smooth without REM. It is during this sleep stage that memories are deprived of their emotional charge. In fact, REM sleep is the only time of day, when our levels of noradrenaline – the neurotransmitter responsible for taking action in stressful situations – is the lowest.
Chemistry of bad dreams
But sometimes our lives get beyond tough. Then, stress hormone levels, including noradrenaline, rise. In fact, in PTSD patients, who often suffer from nightmare disorder, noradrenaline levels are higher than normal. These traumatized individuals are trying to deal with their painful memories, and so is their REM sleep. The brain will attempt to “de-emotionalize” these memories, and when it fails, there’s a high chance, it will keep trying.
With the chemical balance disturbed, the brain temporarily loses its ability to “de-emotionalize” our memories, and REM becomes literally the Upside Down – a mean place to relive the darkest variations of our worst traumas.
It’s also worth knowing, why the deeply disturbing bad dreams are so vivid and why you remember them better than other dreams. The reason is connected with waking up – as in all dreams, almost every part of the brain is active. That includes the cortex responsible for the content of the dream and the visual cortex, right at the back of the brain, responsible for seeing dreams. We also tend to better remember dreams with an emotional load. Now add two and two together. Bad dreams cause a strong emotional reaction that makes the dreamer wake up. The images from the dream are still present in the visual cortex as afterimages – that’s why bad dreams seem more vivid than other dreams.
How to stop nightmares
It’s perfectly normal to be afraid of bad dreams. They hit us where it hurts the most at the time when we’re most vulnerable. But there are ways to prevent bad dreams.
The first is medication. As mentioned before, dreamers with high noradrenaline levels are more prone to having nightmares. But there are medications that lower the levels of the stress-related neurotransmitter.
The second solution comes from technology and science combined. Relaxing music lowers your heart rate, blood pressure, cortisol levels, anxiety and stress – as proven by multiple studies. That is the scientific base of Nightly – almost 90% of our users do not report a single bad dream. Nightly not only relaxes you when you’re falling asleep – it also actively watches over your sleep quality throughout the night. Its AI-powered algorithm is able to identify periods during the night crucial for your undisturbed sleep, and in those moments, it repeats the same soothing sounds you fell asleep with to calm you down and keep you clear of stressful themes. Nightly has also been clinically tested to make sure your sleep architecture is maintained.
Finally, you can take a closer look at your diet. Some foods are known for their REM-disruptive powers. So avoid any high-fat foods, including cheese or ice cream or spicy food, as delicious as it is, before going to sleep.
“It’s just a dream”
You probably heard this sentence way more than enough – often spoken by close friends in good faith. But it’s easy to say for people who have never truly experienced the terrifying horror of a bad dream. Dismissing nightmares as “just a dream” shows basic incomprehension of this very complex and serious phenomenon.
But taking back sleep and regaining your life is possible. And science has been proving it.