As common as nightmares are, people rarely seem to discuss them.
Up to 90% of people will have nightmares at least sometimes. Many struggle with them weekly.
“People don’t talk about bad dreams with their providers, often because they don’t think there’s anything that can be done,” said Courtney Golding, PhD, a psychologist at the Spectrum Health Sleep Disorders Center.
And that’s a shame.
Because nightmares can be harmful. They cause distress, they zap your energy and they can impair how you function.
Sleep experts get closer all the time to learning how and why we dream.
New research is discovering the neural connections between the strong emotions we feel when we’re dreaming and those we feel when we’re awake.
“We’ve moved away from the Freudian approach of reading deeply into the meaning of dreams, as current science focuses on brain physiology, neural networks and cognitive behavioral explanations,” Dr. Golding said.
Rather than look for any hidden meaning, experts rely on the theory of activation synthesis, Dr. Golding said. The theory suggests dreams are likely the result of sleeping brains trying to make sense of what happens during waking hours, cementing the day’s events into memories.
She likes to compare our brains to computers.
“We’re trying to save memories from the day, but we’re also going back into old file folders, selecting a random memory and hitting refresh,” she said. “And then we try to make a story out of it. Our brains like stories.”
This explains why dreams are so predictably nonsensical, mixing up random people, memories and places.
“Maybe you dreamed about a snake because you saw one on TV, or maybe it’s from a memory that goes back to grade school,” she said. “Or you’ll dream about an old friend, but they are in your new house.”
And no, they can’t predict the future, no matter what the soothsayers tell you.
But anxious, fearful or angry dreams can tell us that we might be more stressed than we realize, Dr. Golding said.
“All day, we direct our brains,” she said. “But we take our days to bed with us. And while we are asleep, the brain can say, ‘This is what I want to focus on.’”
So pay attention to frequency.
A disturbing dream once a month or less isn’t likely to have much meaning.
“But if they happen more often and cause you to say things like, ‘I can’t sleep because I am plagued by these dreams,’ or, ‘I wake up exhausted, feeling like I was fighting all night long,’ it’s time to take action,” she said.
Different populations are likely to have more nightmares than others.
Studies have shown that 14% of college students have bad dreams at least weekly, while 75% of those with post-traumatic stress struggle with frequent nightmares.
One solution is to treat the underlying stress.
“Sometimes, it’s as simple as delegating more at work or home, getting back to yoga or stepping up other forms of self-care,” Golding said.
And while there are also medications available, an easy first step involves imagery rehearsal therapy. It’s as simple as thinking about a pleasant dream you’d like to have, then mentally rehearsing it twice a day.
“It sounds easier than anything should,” she said. “So there’s plenty of skepticism.”
Initially developed for people with severe PTSD, it has been proven effective with many populations, Dr. Golding said. It works because bad dreams—especially the recurring ones—may simply be one of the brain’s habits.
The technique can eliminate bad dreams or at least improve symptoms by reducing the frequency and intensity of the dream.
Rehearsing positive dreams could mean imagining a different twist on bad dreams, like thinking about a work presentation that goes well. But they can also be completely unrelated, like a day at the beach or a walk in the woods.
People are often reluctant to try it. But there’s minimal risk.
“I can usually get clients on board by saying, ‘What harm could it do?’”
And if you’re the kind of person who doesn’t dream much, or at least doesn’t seem to remember many dreams?
Relax and snooze on.
“That’s normal,” Dr. Golding said. “Most of us forget our dreams in that early morning fog.”