by Andrea M. Darcy
Keep having nightmares, and wondering how connected bad dreams and mental health really are? And if there is any good side to the situation?
Why do I keep having nightmares?
Bad dreams can sometimes have a physical cause. It’s important to rule out things like taking a new medication, including anti-depressants. Or a sleep issue like restless leg syndrome or sleep apnea.
And don’t discount a new regime of exercising or drinking alcohol before bed, both of which can be major sleep disruptors.
But nightmares are more often connected to stress, anxiety, and traumatic events. And this can include world events. Many people have seen a rise of bad dreams since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, for example.
Bad times, bad dreams?
Several studies clearly show a direct correlation between the recent pandemic and the rise of nightmares. This was particularly true for those working with the victims. A study of frontline workers in Wuhan during the first outbreak found that more than 25 per cent reported constant nightmares during their sleep.
But it was also true for civilians. An Italian study found that women and young people in particular were dreaming of difficult and upsetting things, including death.
Why do I have nightmares when life gets hard?
Stress affects our cognitive function. And it causes us to have more REM sleep, the form of sleep where we have dreams. Although current research is only in rats, it did clearly demonstrate that those who were put through stressful experiences before sleep had more periods of REM.
Bad dreams also happen as our brain is trying to organise its input, so to speak. A related study presented the rats above with the same stressor. It found that the part of the brain responsible for processing emotional events in dreams immediately responded. The conclusion is that it’s likely that bad dreams are about long-term storage and processing of bad memories.
The good side to nightmares
1. They let us know when there is something we need to deal with or face.
Some of us are ‘copers’. We put on our cheery face and soldier on, acting as if all is fine when it isn’t. Nightmares are your mind’s way of saying, not so fast. Things are not fine, and this needs your attention.
An Italian study of the rise of nightmares in civilians during the coronavirus pandemic pointed this out clearly when it stated,
“dream content analysis is a very informative approach for studying the effects of significant contextual and catastrophic events, such as COVID-19 pandemic, on people’s inner lives”.
2. They mean our mind is self-soothing.
Sleep expert Matthew Walker, in his video series on sleep for masterclass.com, calls dreaming “emotional first aid at night”. He explains that when we are in REM sleep our brain —
“–takes the difficult, maybe even traumatic memories we have been having during the day, and it will reprocess those emotional memories. Sleep acts almost like a nocturnal soothing balm. It will take the sharp edges off those emotional experiences…. divorcing the emotion from the memory”.
3. They help us cope better in real time.
The point of our brain ‘divorcing the emotion from the memory’ is thought to be a primal mechanism to help us survive. We are then less distraught when the memory arises in real, awake time, and more able to get on with things.
4. Nightmares might lower our chance of developing depression.
In the same Masterclass video series, Matt Walker discusses a study where a group of people suffering from depression after experiencing a difficult event were asked to record their dreams.
Those in the group who actually were dreaming of the difficult event they went through were more likely to experience remission from their depression than the people who dreamt of things other than their experience.
PTSD and nightmares
An American study of PTSD sufferers found that up to 71 per cent reported frequent nightmares.
Of course if our nightmares are connected to a very serious trauma, then it’s a different story. Particularly if we have post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The above is not meant to imply that a veteran dreaming nightly of horrific acts of war should just shrug and thing his mind is processing.
PTSD can mean your mind is stuck in more of a playback loop, and the nightmares leave you less able to cope, not more.
If you have not been diagnosed with PTSD, but your nightmare is always the same, a continuous replay or discussion or the same difficult event you lived through? It’s worth booking with a specialist to see if it’s connected.
Mental health and nightmares
As well as PTSD, nightmares can also be a sign of a mental health disorder, including:
Can counselling help my nightmares?
Counselling can help you deal with the stressful experiences that might be the root of your bad dreams. And it’s particularly recommended if you think you might have PTSD, depression, anxiety or schizophrenia.
Therapies that can help with nightmares include clinical hypnotherapy, cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), and Image Reversal Therapy (IRT).
IRT is used for treating PTSD, and is actually a tool that certain CBT therapists offer. It involves writing down the narrative of your bad dreams, then ‘rewriting’ the endings. The idea here is that rewriting your dreams while awake can mean they start to change while you are asleep.
Ready to stop the nightmare and start being yourself again? We connect you with a team of highly regarded mental health experts in London, from talk therapists to psychiatrists and GPs with a mental health speciality. Or use our booking platform to find a UK-wide registered therapist now.
Andrea M. Darcy is a writer and coach with training in person centred counselling. She has always had very vivid dreams, that she spends a lot of time writing out, so enjoyed writing this article! Connect with her on Instagram @am_darcy