Why do nightmares happen? And what are nightmares, really?
Nightmares are dreams that are scary and often quite vivid, leaving the dreamer feeling out-of-control and frightened even upon awakening. They’re a result of brain activity during deep Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep, when your brain processes and stores information in your memory.
But that clinical definition doesn’t give you a lot of comfort if you’re dealing with nightmares. If you or your child suffers from nightmares on a regular basis, it can seem like there’s nothing that makes it better. Here’s what you need to know.
Nightmares vs. Night Terrors
Nightmares are not the same as night terrors. Night terrors often happen in the first third of the night and are less common than nightmares. A child who has night terrors never wakes up during the event, and won’t remember her fear the next morning. Nightmares occur during a different sleep stage – during REM sleep – and may leave you or your little one feeling frightened or upset, even hours after the dream.
Nightmares in Children
Kids suffer nightmares more often than adults. Nightmares are most common in 5- to 8-year-olds, according to Baby Center. Children in this age range are getting to be “big kids,” whose growing awareness of the world is expanding to understand traumatic events like death, divorce, and painful accidents. That’s a lot to process, and dreams help children work through this new knowledge safely while they sleep.
Nightmares in Adults
About 5 percent of the general adult public complain of regular nightmares, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs – but among adults who have experienced traumatic events, those numbers are much higher. Adults who experience occasional nightmares are experiencing the brain’s normal mechanism for working through emotional responses in dreams. If, however, you have regular nightmares as an adult, you might want to consider seeing a specialist to determine if physical sickness, emotional upheaval, or a traumatic experience is affecting your ability to get the sleep you need.
An adult with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is much more likely to have a nightmare that exactly re-lives a traumatic event than a person without PTSD. About half of people with PTSD have nightmares that are “re-do”s of a particular event, again according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Others with PTSD may have dreams that reflect particular elements of the trauma – a victim of a robbery, for example, may dream about facing a gun, for example.
There seem to be other differences between post-trauma dreams and ordinary adult nightmares, too. PTSD nightmares are more likely to happen earlier in the night, have higher instances of bodily movement and crying out, and may happen in non-REM sleep phases.
Are Nightmares Normal?
Nightmares, if occasional, can be a normal part of life for kids and adults. It’s a natural outlet for the brain to process disturbing information in the comfort and safety of our own beds. If, however, you or your child suffers from regular or repeating nightmares, talk to a doctor about things you can do to help make nightmares a less common event.