Where do realistic bad dreams come from

Nightmares: where do they come from and what can be done about them?

Almost everyone has had nightmares at some point. They often appear in childhood, but many adults also suffer from them occasionally or even recurrently. In the dream you experience things that could come from a horror film and from which you wake up bathed in sweat and nervous. However, nightmares not only affect the night, they also affect the day. Those who are plagued by nightmares at night wake up sleepless, feel tired during the day, have less concentration and are less productive. Nightmares are especially problematic when they occur more frequently or when you suffer from them every night.

The topics at a glance:

What are nightmares?
How and why do nightmares arise?
The best strategies to avoid and get rid of nightmares

What are nightmares?

Nightmares are dreams that are accompanied by strong negative feelings such as fear, shame, sadness, anger or disgust. Sometimes the emotions are so strong that you wake up from a bad dream with a real panic attack. After waking up you find yourself in the familiar environment and can orientate yourself quickly, but the memory of the dream and the feelings that accompanied it remain and can affect thinking and feeling throughout the day.

As a GfK survey from 2007 shows, by far the most common nightmare of Germans is to plunge into the depths. Many people who suffer from nightmares dream of being followed or on the run, they see themselves passed out in danger or in a dream come too late to an important appointment. The death experienced in dreams or the disappearance of loved ones also cause sleep disorders for many.

Nightmares can appear as realistic dreams in which everything is as it could be in reality. They can be of an unrealistic nature, then you suddenly live in a different place or in a dream you meet a person who has long since died. But they can also appear as bizarre dreams and ignore all the rules of the real world.

Those who suffer from chronic nightmares usually do not get any further by ignoring the dreams, but need psychological support. Nightmares are seen as a serious problem by doctors and psychologists. In the 10th revision of the International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems (ICD-10), a number of criteria have been added for diagnosing nightmares. One of them is that you wake up from your night's sleep with vivid memories of the anxiety dreams and these are characterized by a threatening experience. Typically, nightmares occur in the second half of the night and they cause significant distress.

How and why do nightmares arise?

The word "nightmare" is borrowed from Norse mythology. In it, the Alb is a natural being that is mostly described as positive and light. An important testimony to the origin and use of the term Alb is the Snorra Edda, which is considered to be an important literary work that has passed down Nordic mythology. In it, albums are differentiated into light albums and black albums, the former being beautiful, but black albums black as bad luck. In the Middle Ages negative properties are ascribed to the Alb and it is viewed as a nightly villain who sits on the sleeping person's chest and thereby causes him nightmares. The resulting feeling describes what you feel when you wake up from your creepy dreams at night.

It has long been clear that it is not mythical creatures that cause bad dreams. Still, it is controversial where the nightmares come from. Some scientists assume that they are an involuntary product of colorfully mixed up images, others see nightmares as a mirror of unconscious conflicts. Many researchers are now convinced that dreams are processed during the day. Exam anxiety, conflicts in the school yard or with a partner or a choleric boss are reflected in the dreams. Another reason can be trauma that has remained unprocessed and causes post-traumatic nightmares. Other possible causes in the literature are mental disorders such as depression or schizophrenia, but sleep apnea or medication and the anesthetic propofol can also cause nightmares.

The best strategies to avoid and get rid of nightmares

You don't have to take nightmares for granted. Although the topic has long been neglected in psychotherapy and only very few go to the doctor because of their nightmares, effective strategies against it are known today. Nightmares strategies are designed to relieve the stress of suffering, not primarily to interpret the dreams.

Various therapies help against nightmares. Relaxation methods such as progressive muscle relaxation are considered effective. On the one hand, you can minimize the stress as a trigger, but on the other hand you can also reduce the consequences of nightmares. However, the Imagery Rehearsal Therapy (IRT), which has also been introduced in Germany in recent years, has become particularly well known. As with other anti-anxiety therapies, it assumes that confrontation is effective. Those affected learn to face their fear triggers and actively modify their dreams. To do this, as part of the therapy, they put themselves in the shoes of the dream and think about how they could change it so that it ends well. They practice the dream changed in this way every day for two weeks. This removes the horror from experienced nightmares and even if new nightmares occur, these are no longer experienced as stressful and frightening after the therapy.

Anyone who is not plagued by chronic nightmares and does not feel impaired by occasional or rare anxiety dreams in everyday life can take similar action against the nightly nightmarish specter. It is helpful to talk to someone about the dream as soon as you wake up and thus bring about a confrontation with the fears. Alternatively, it is a good idea to keep a dream diary. For this, it is best to have a notebook and a pen ready at all times next to the bed. If you write down your nightmares, you also have a better overview of how often they really occur. During the day one can also imagine positive outcomes for the nightmares and practice again and again and thus apply the techniques of Imagery Rehearsal Therapy. However, if the nightmares are chronic or related to other mental disorders, such as trauma, it is important to consult an expert. In such a case, psychological or psychotherapeutic treatment will also be covered by the health insurance companies.

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