What Causes Nightmares?

Instructor: Michael Quist

Michael has taught college-level mathematics and sociology; high school math, history, science, and speech/drama; and has a doctorate in education.

Your subconscious mind can be both wonderful and terrifying. We often wander into strange places and experiences when we sleep. In this lesson, we'll discuss what causes nightmares, our most disturbing sleep experiences.

What are Nightmares?

It's safe to say that scary movies are popular. Whether it's a group of teenagers being terrorized by a chainsaw-wielding maniac or an evil ghost climbing out of a television, they stimulate us, makes us feel alive, and give us a chance to cling to that significant other in the next seat. Of course, if they get too scary, we can turn them off, walk out, or hide our eyes. In our dreams, however, this is not the case. If the carnival ride through our dreams gets scary, we seem to be stuck on the ride until it ends.

A nightmare is a bad dream that causes intense negative emotions, such as fear, sadness, or anger. Nightmares are common among children, often beginning before they turn ten years old, and may continue into adulthood. Occasional nightmares are considered normal, especially during stressful or difficult times in life, and medical professionals generally recommend treatment only if they begin to interfere with life during the day or with getting enough sleep.

Understanding Nightmares

To understand nightmares, it helps to step back and think about what dreams actually are. Of course, to understand dreams we have to step back further and look at the way thoughts happen.

Your brain started developing its web-like map of information pathways before you were even born, making connections between your genetic blueprints (which you got from both your father and mother) and your experiences. Every time your senses noticed something, even before birth, your brain would shape itself to adapt to the new information. After you were born, the pace of new experiences became more rapid, and your brain continued to expand, forming the mind of the person you are now.

Psychologists have pointed out that we have several layers of memory and thought within our minds. Some layers are buried farther back, while others are up front. The ones in back are hard to get to. They're the memories that come up when we smell a certain fragrance or hear a certain song. They're decisions or conclusions we reach when we didn't even know we were thinking about them. They're the hidden fears and resentments that cause us to do things we don't want to, hurting people that we want to love.

Dreaming is the mind's way of sorting things out. Like the truest parts of our waking thoughts, dreams communicate in pictures and experiences, rather than depending on words. Rich in metaphors, they set symbols before us in the ways that the mind really thinks, rather than the comfortable packages we try to put our thoughts into during the day. Dreams speak the truth about what we're thinking and feeling, although the messages can certainly be lost to our conscious mind.

So why are some dreams so awful that they cause us to wake up terrified and never want to go to sleep again? Why would our minds give us images so sad that we wake up crying, or so horrific that we wake up enraged? The answer is a strange mix of mystical biochemistries.

Every thought is an energized set of connections among the neurons (signal carriers) in our brains. Sort of like connections on a huge flexible circuit board, our neurons build up small chemical packets of energy in intersections all over our brains, causing certain connections to 'fire' (communicate). When those connections fire, thought processes happen. Something gets stored in memory. Your finger moves. A picture appears in your mind. You remember an aroma from twenty years ago.

During a nightmare, your neurons go into overdrive, processing emotions and perceptions at an extreme level. The dreams are yours, but they are out of control, causing stressful emotional responses in your mind. Instead of remembering that Mommy got angry when you were two years old, you see a terrible ogre with long fingernails tearing at your flesh. Instead of the fear of making a mistake in your presentation tomorrow, you experience your embarrassment as you appear in front of the stockholders or PTA meeting with no agenda and no clothes.

Why They Happen

Why does your mind get into this weird chemical state?

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