Why do we have nightmares?

Why do we have nightmares?


According to scientists, nightmares help the brain process intense experiences during the day.

Science has clear the restorative function of sleep, but not so much that of nightmares.

90% of the population has ever woken up in cold sweats, trembling with fear and with an accelerated heart.

But contrary to what it may seem, some experts now say, nightmares could be a good thing.

According to the American Sleep Association, one possible explanation is that they help the brain process intense experiences during the day.

If you are saturated at work, for example, you might dream that you are caught in a tsunami.

Copyright of the GETTY IMAGES imageImage caption Those who have nightmares can not realize that it is a dream, which exacerbates fear.


Experts say that nightmares also help us deal with disturbing events in real life.

“Distressing experiences can be remembered during sleep, acquiring a dramatic character ,” explains Juan Pareja Grande, head of the Sleep Unit of the University Hospital Quirónsalud Madrid in Spain.

During the day we link events with emotional responses, although not always in a useful way.

For example, we can learn to be afraid of something that is not a threat.

Dreams allow us to minimize the importance of useless connections by mixing terrifying things with things that do not scare us, and with time we become less frightened.

A characteristic common to nightmares is that the person who experiences them is not able to realize that he is immersed in a dream, which of course increases the level of terror they feel .

Sleeping woman
Copyright of the GETTY IMAGES imageImage caption Nightmares are considered to be a spontaneous phenomenon, but factors such as drugs or alcohol can encourage them at night.


“In the vast majority of patients, nightmares do not require treatment,” the doctor adds.

Medications and stress

Nightmares usually take place in the first third of the night. That is, if we sleep eight hours on average, this type of sleep will appear in two and a half hours after falling asleep.

It is a phenomenon considered spontaneous, but Dr. Pareja recalls that they can also be caused by stress, anxiety or some drugs .

“The drugs that most often cause nightmares are those that treat high blood pressure,” he says.

But it also names others such as psychoactive drugs, medication for Parkinson’s, for neurodegenerative diseases or for the heart.

Patches and pills that help people stop smoking have also been flagged as triggers, as well as alcohol or the use of recreational drugs.

Can they be avoided?

Nightmares, when they become recurrent, are usually treated by doctors or therapists and are not corrected through changes in sleep hygiene.

More often, they will be caused by mental disorders or lack of sleep. Or they may also not have an identifiable cause.

“However, most chronic nightmares are caused by psychological problems , and for this you should consult a psychologist or therapist,” recommends the American Sleep Association.

Man sleeping
Copyright of the GETTY IMAGES imageImage caption Most chronic nightmares are caused by psychological problems.


The Mayo Clinic in the United States believes that imagination testing therapy , often used with people who have nightmares from post-traumatic stress disorder, is an effective treatment.

“It consists in changing the end of the nightmare that you remember while you are awake so that it is no longer threatening, then you try the new ending in your mind, this approach can reduce the frequency of nightmares,” he explains.

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