Why don't dreams repeat themselves more often?

nightmare The monsters of the night


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Hide, quick! It comes running over there, the mighty monster. Aaaah, now it's going to strike. He's sitting out, all too late, dead. Bathed in sweat, you open your eyes in bed. What was that just now? Just a dream. A nightmare. Which is actually good for us in the end.

Status: 06/17/2020

The term nightmare

The term is traced back to albums - elves from Germanic mythology. You should have been responsible for dreams. One liked to imagine them crouching on the sleeping person's chest - which explains the older term "nightmare".

Not only do you have dreams at 17 - at 70, a person has just been dreaming for six to seven years. Until then, he has lived through around 150,000 situations asleep. And that is certainly not always pleasant: nightmares torment everyone now and then, five to ten percent of all healthy adults suffer from recurring nightmares, and traumatized or sick people even more often. Now more and more neuroscientists are concerned with what happens in our head during a nightmare - and why we dream "badly".

Nightmare Researcher collects dreams and brain scans

Patrick McNamara is a neuroscientist, professor of psychiatry at Boston University and a nightmare researcher. The various gruesome stories that robbed his patients of sleep gave him an idea: He began to collect thousands of dreams, evaluate them and compare the brain scans of their authors.

The panic at night is no accident

In almost all dreams unknown beings appeared: monsters or similar unnatural, malicious creatures. They chased the dreaming and awakened an existential fear that made them wake up bathed in sweat and with a racing heart. McNamara is certain that this panic is no accident. For him, nightmares have a specific purpose: like a fever, they are not pleasant, but important to us.

Nothing moves in the REM phase - just the dreams

Such nightmares almost always occur during the so-called REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep phase: the brain is highly active, while all muscles are relaxed, only the eyeballs are still rolling back and forth behind the lids. This is not only good for dreaming, but also for dreaming: this overriding the body prevents the dreamer from injuring himself while fighting the demon.

And sometimes even the muscle relaxation is reflected in the dream itself: When the dreamer wants to flee from the specter, but remains standing as if firmly cemented; when he wants to scream for help but remains silent; or if either the monster or the fear of it takes the breath away. In the REM phase, even the respiratory muscles are inhibited and rapid breathing is impossible. The biology of this sleep phase can therefore reinforce what has been experienced - a nightmare within a nightmare.

Monster Loophole Amygdala

But how do the monsters get into our heads? In the brain scans of the nightmare-plagued, McNamara could clearly see which brain region is particularly active when dreaming: the limbic system, which is responsible for emotions. Especially the part called the amygdala, he gives the copyrights for the bad stories:

"She masters negative emotions, especially fear. A nightmare is basically the loss of the inhibitory mechanisms of the various interconnections that normally regulate fear and panic."

Patrick McNamara, neuroscientist at the University of Boston / USA

Women, children and adolescents are more likely to have bad dreams

Children often dream very intensely and sometimes also have nightmares.

Women show greater activity in the amygdala - and suffer up to three times more often from nightmares than men. However, the worst affected are children and adolescents. Karl-Heinz Brisch, Head of the Department of Pediatric Psychosomatics and Psychotherapy at the Children's Clinic and Polyclinic in the Dr. von Haunersche Children's Hospital in Munich, is of the opinion that children - just like adults - process wishes, worries and fears in their sleep. However, children are not that good at dealing with fears. Everything that is new and unknown has a threatening effect on them and can become a template for nightly horror fantasies.

"Preschool children often have a fearful dream because they have to absorb and process so much. That just happens in dreams. It's not exciting, but a good form of coping and relatively normal."

Karl-Heinz Brisch, Head of Child Psychosomatics at Dr. von Haunersche Children's Hospital in Munich

Who am I - and if so, with how many monsters?

Young children in particular suffer from nightmares.

Often monsters or wild animals are up to mischief in the child's imagination. But nightmares can also have a real background - for example problems in kindergarten or school or the separation of parents. Children up to elementary school age particularly suffer from nightmares because they cannot correctly distinguish between dream and reality. You cannot distance yourself from the nightmares even during the day. It is therefore important to talk to the children about what has been dreamed or to let them paint what has been dreamed so that they can process it. But adults too have to revise and sharpen their role, their point of view in life, and their self-confidence every now and then.

Nightmares seem threatening to us, they are frightening deviations from a norm known to us. If McNamara is to be followed, we should be grateful to our monsters: they help us establish our identities while we sleep.

The nightmare as a health risk

Nightmares can increase blood pressure.

If nightmares haunt and torment us every night, it can lead to sleep disturbances and thus reduced performance during the day up to depression. Regular nightmare attacks can also be detrimental to health. The dreams can lead to a constant increase in blood pressure. If other risk factors are also present - such as hardening of the arteries, smoking or being overweight - the chronic nightmares can affect the heart and even lead to a stroke.

Therapy for chronic nightmares

In such a case, therapeutic help is important. There is a therapy process that transforms the end of the nightmare - so-called Imaginary Rehearsal Therapy. You imagine a different, positive outcome to the nightmare, write it down, go through the version over and over with your therapist. And at some point it may be possible to incorporate this new twist into the dream version as well - to find an escape route from the previously hopeless situation.

Tip: Go to bed as relaxed as possible

Relaxation rituals help before going to sleep.

For occasional nightmares, simple rituals before going to bed can help. Whether it's hot milk with honey, a relaxation ritual, bathing, reading, going for a walk or doing other things: It is important to go to bed with different thoughts, free from the stresses and worries of the day.