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Dreams, Nightmares and Stress

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By Michael Breus, PhD, ABSMJuly 22, 2010
From the WebMD Archives

Most of us have experienced them: weird, vivid dreams that leave us thinking about them the next day. But “weird” can mean several things in this regard. It can imply dreams that call up people from the past, the dead or even those of a sexual nature. Strange dreams can also entail those that wake us up in a state of high anxiety and stress. You know the kind: you’ve shown up for a big test that you didn’t study for, or an event in your real life goes horribly wrong in your dream life.

The stressful dreams usually follow a similar pattern. And they are commonly experienced, ranging from those that have you losing your teeth to being chased or to coming close to dying.

An article in an online British newspaper recently reported on a Chinese study done on the effects bad dreams can have on us. No, it’s not just about the disrupting, sweaty sleep they can cause. Bad dreams can actually have far more health consequences than you might imagine. Problems like:

  • Insomnia
  • Fatigue
  • Headaches
  • Depression
  • Anxiety

In fact, mental health problems, such as depression, were five times more common in people who had regular nightmares. And about one in 20 people suffer from frequent or chronic nightmares — defined as at least once a week. Technically, nightmares are defined as frightening dreams that awaken you from rapid eye movement or REM sleep, a time when there are high levels of brain activity.

Interestingly, the study also showed that women were more susceptible to these dreams than men. Other findings of note:

  • Those in the “neurotic category” were more likely to have scary dreams.
  • There is evidence of a genetic susceptibility to nightmares.
  • Frequency was also linked to income and unemployment. Those reporting the lowest incomes were 2.3 times more likely to have three or more nightmares a week compared to the more affluent.
  • Higher levels of stress associated with lower incomes and social status may predispose some people to nightmares.
  • The risk of having a psychiatric disorder was 5.7 times greater for those with frequent nightmares compared with those without.

So what were the top nightmares in the study?

  • Falling (39.5%)
  • Being chased (25.7%)
  • Being paralyzed (25.3%)
  • Being late for an event (24.0%)
  • Close person disappears/ dies (20.9%)
  • Horror films (18.9%)
  • Unable to complete a task (17.3%)

Which ones have you had?

If you’re the type who does experience frequent nightmares, don’t fret that you’re doomed to have a psychiatric disorder or on the road to depression. That’s not the point. The best solution to preventing bad dreams begins with better managing stress in your life. After all, living a low-stress life has enormous health benefits that will automatically reduce your risk for the very same conditions that nightmares seem to trigger, such as insomnia, depression and anxiety.

You probably can’t prevent every bad dream from creeping into your bedroom at night, but look at it another way: perhaps the bad dreams allow you to work through some of your emotional issues that are better left in the bedroom than in your real, waking life.

Something to think, perchance to dream, about.

Sweet Non-scary Dreams,

Michael J. Breus, PhD
The Sleep Doctor™

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