By definition, nightmares are detailed dreams that evoke powerful, negative feelings in the person experiencing them. They can induce panic, fear, anxiety, grief, sadness or more. Most people caught in the throes of a nightmare feel threatened, and may even wake up to avoid the perceived threat. If you've ever experienced a nightmare, and most of us have at one time or another, then you're familiar with the feelings that can range from helplessness to outright horror.
What you may not realize, however, is that nightmares -- for the most part -- are beneficial.
The Untold Benefits of Bad Dreams
According to Psychology Today, nightmares are mostly a normal occurrence that serve a purpose: to help your mind and body work through anxiety, trauma or stress. If you've ever noticed your nightmares increasing in frequency during periods of stress, this may be why.
Dreaming occurs during the period of Rapid Eye Movement, or REM sleep. It's during this time that your brain begins to sift through and organize the day's events. During REM sleep, your limbs are typically paralyzed; otherwise you might act out the movements that your body experiences inside your dream or nightmare. It's the thinking, learning and organizing parts of your brain that participate in REM sleep and dreams, which is a large part of the reason why scientists feel dreams -- even nightmares -- are beneficial.
When Nightmares Become a Nightmare
Have too many nightmares too close together, however, and they could begin to affect your competency throughout the day. When this happens, it's called Nightmare Disorder, and it can wreak havoc with your daily routine. People who suffer from Nightmare Disorder are consistently lacking in sleep, which can lead to daytime fatigue, illness, depression, lowered immunity and more. The symptoms of Nightmare Disorder are easily recognized:
- Nightmares happen frequently instead of being isolated incidences.
- You wake up repeatedly throughout the night with vivid recollections of nightmares.
- You wake up instantly alert and aware.
- Nightmares and loss of sleep begin to impair how you function throughout the day.
Nightmare Disorder is often caused by chemical substances -- either abuse of them or withdrawal from them. But may also just be an indicator of too much stress in your life. Nightmares and stress travel hand-in-hand, and until you learn how to lessen the stress in your life, nightmares may become your too-frequent companions.
Reclaiming Sleep After a Nightmare
Getting back to sleep after experiencing a nightmare isn't always easy, but there are different methods you can try to find the ones that work the best.
Breathing exercises, such as Dr. Andrew Weil's 4-7-8 breathing method, are usually beneficial. Using this method, you sit up straight, tuck the tip of your tongue behind your upper teeth, and exhale completely. Then, breathe in through your nose to the count of four. Hold your breath for 7 seconds, then breathe out through your mouth to the count of eight. This helps you relax and helps to circulate oxygen throughout your body.
Exercise is another effective tool to use in the battle against nightmares. Adopting a daily workout routine will help alleviate stress.
If you feel you consistently have more stress in your life than is manageable, it may be time to talk with a mental health professional. Sometimes, all it takes is the opportunity to share your fears and concerns with another person to take away most of the power your thoughts hold over you.