Dreams and nightmares

Although we might not always remember them, we all dream. Sometimes we have incredibly vivid dreams, and sometimes they’re incredibly weird. But what is going on in our brains when we snooze, and why do we have nightmares? Read on as The Mix explains what dreams and nightmares are all about.

Three young people are standing outside talking about dreams and asking, "why do I have nightmares?"

What’s happening when I’m asleep?

Scientists have found patterns in how much brain and muscle activity is taking place when we sleep, and divided the time we spend asleep into five stages. Stage one sleep only lasts for one to seven minutes, and is when we are feeling drowsy, but can still be easily awoken. As we go into stage two sleep, it becomes harder to wake us; we spend about 50% of our time asleep in this state.

Then follows the deepest slumber in the third and fourth stages. At this time our heart and respiratory rates decrease, and our body temperature drops. If you’re prone to sleepwalking, it’s during these stages that you’ll do your wandering. 

The last stage of sleep is known as Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep; the time for dreaming. We typically have three to five periods of REM sleep per night, occurring every hour or two. During REM sleep, the main muscle groups of the body are paralysed, and only smaller muscles like fingers, toes or facial muscles can move or twitch. The paralysis might be our body’s way of making sure that we don’t act out what’s happening in our dreams or nightmares.

Different people need different amounts of sleep, see our article ‘how much sleep do I need’ to learn more. If you’re regularly struggling to fall asleep, you might like to read our article ‘what is insomnia’.

Why do I dream?

Although science has discovered a lot about how our brains work during dreaming, we still know very little about why. Sigmund Freud thought that dreams were a way of fulfilling our wishes, while Carl Jung thought dreams made up for parts of the psyche undeveloped by daytime activities. Recently, it has been suggested that dreaming has a role in how we develop and learn. Experiments have shown that memory is better after a good night’s sleep, so doing an all-nighter before exams is not a good idea.

Some scientists believe that dreaming could be the body’s way of sorting out which memories to store and which to delete, and to compare new experiences with old memories. Others claim that dreams are a subconscious effort to solve problems the sleeper may not even be aware of… so basically, no-one really knows!

Why do we have nightmares?

Solving problems isn’t what most of us will associate with nightmares, but some believe that these nightly frights are signals about things that are wrong, or need facing up to. Although dreams can be intense and often include emotions of anxiety and fear, a bad dream becomes a nightmare when, because of the intensity of emotions, we wake up.

Why do I keep having bad dreams?

Nightmares are often long or elaborate and can be recurring. Everyone has the occasional nightmare, but some people suffer from ‘nightmare disorder’, which can be diagnosed based on how frequently you’re having them. People struggling with alcoholism or drug addiction, and people who have experienced trauma, are more likely to have recurring or frequent nightmares.

If your nightmares occur frequently enough that they make it difficult to fall asleep or routinely disrupt your sleep, it’s time to consult your doctor. They might refer you to a sleep clinic where you can be checked for sleep disorders. If you’ve got one, they will properly diagnose you and provide long-term treatment.

Can nightmares be avoided?

  • If you ask your grandmother, she is likely to say eating cheese will give you nightmares. Although this is not scientific, it isn’t recommended to eat large meals before going to bed, as your digestive system will not be able to function properly.
  • Ensure your sleeping environment is suitable, and limit alcohol or drugs.
  • For a more psychological approach, trying to master lucid dreaming might be worth a shot. This is a way of making yourself aware that you’re only dreaming, and trying to control your dreams.

What are night terrors?

Some people experience extreme feelings of fear in their sleep. As opposed to nightmares, which happen during REM sleep, night terrors or ‘incubus attacks’ occur during stage four of sleep. Unlike nightmares, which we often remember as movie-like dreams, those who suffer from night terrors can rarely explain what they were dreaming of, other than that they experienced an extreme sense of fear. However, when they do remember, spiders, snakes, animals, people, or an evil presence in the room are often featured.

Some sufferers continue to hallucinate when they wake, which can cause some to become violent, either as a response to their dreams, or in an attempt to run away. The cause of night terrors is thought to be increased brain activity, or a chemical reaction that makes the brain ‘misfire’. For many, medical advice is necessary to help people cope.

Do dreams mean anything?

People have tried to interpret dreams since 3,000 BC, when they were recorded on stone tablets. Roman emperors often brought dream interpreters to the battlefield, but in the 19th century, dreaming somewhat lost its status, and it was believed they stemmed from anxiety or indigestion. Now we know that if we are woken up during the REM stage, we are more likely to remember our dreams. This is one of the reasons it is often easier to remember nightmares, because we wake while still in the REM phase.

Most of us only remember about one percent of our dreams, but there are a few common themes such as being naked, taking an exam, falling or flying, missing a body part (often teeth falling out) or searching or being chased. Sigmund Freud, who revolutionised the study of dreams, was preoccupied with their sexual content. He believed that long, slender or elongated objects represented the male phallus, while any cavity or receptacle (bowl, caves, etc) denoted the female genitalia.

Interpreting dreams can be great fun, and some websites offer online dictionaries. However, there is no solid scientific evidence that you should base your actions in your waking life on what happens in your dreams.

Check out the rest of The Mix’s articles on sleeping here.

Next Steps

By The Mix Staff

Updated on 07-Nov-2022