An article by Dr. Heidi Lepper, Ph.D.

We Don't Like Them But Nightmares Help You!

This is for anyone who has ever had a nightmare and who also wants to feel more capable at dealing with the downs in life. You wake up in the dark of night, your heart pounding, your body sweating feeling frozen to the mattress with the memory of a horrible, awful, frightening nightmare lingering. As an adult you get up and use the bathroom, rubbing your face in the hopes to erase the memory of the dream and go back to sleep. As a kid you jumped out of bed running full bore into your parents' room in the hopes of finding comfort. Oh, nightmares are horrible! And yet it is believed they serve a remarkable purpose at preparing us for the difficulties in life.

Dream Content

When we are well slept, and that means on average of 8.5 hours a night (not 5 or 6 mind you, but 8.5 hours a night as adults and much more as teens and children), we go through five dream (REM) cycles every night. Reports from sleep studies suggest that more rather than fewer of our dreams are negative in nature (about 8 out of 10 dreams). Struggling against something, getting lost, not being able to move, infidelities, fighting with someone and so forth make up most of our dreams. But nightmares are more negative, more vivid and certainly more frightening, waking us up and making it very hard to go back to sleep. Nightmares are not nearly as common as our every day negative dreams, but we sure do remember them even years later!

Nightmarish Lessons

Nightmares may be nature's way of making sure we learn valuable survival skills but in the safety net of our own beds. The Threat Simulation Theory (proposed by Antti Revonsuo) postulates this notion. We need to practice, safely, over and over again something that might possibly come up in our waking life. Something very challenging, something so threatening that we need extra rehearsal to prepare for it.

To read more on Revonsuo's TST: Evolutionary function of dreams: A test of the threat simulation theory in recurrent dreams [An article from: Consciousness and Cognition]

Let me give you an example: I was born and raised in California where I heard about the "Big One" throughout my childhood and it just so happens that my most frequent nightmare as a girl had to do with earthquakes. I can still recall them: earthquake hits and I cannot get home! or earthquake hits and I am home alone! Those nightmares scared the daylights out of me! Now I am a Midwesterner and I no longer have nightmares about earthquakes. But I do have nightmares now and again about tornados! I traded one negative possibility for another by moving halfway across the U.S. and so I have to be prepared in different ways.

I smiled just a few months ago when my oldest son woke up early one morning with a tornado dream himself. As he was describing his dream to me and how badly it scared him I looked out the window to make sure there was not one coming toward us as his dream description seemed real enough to be true, so that I too shared a bit of his fright. And yet I smiled. And why would I smile when my son was so frightened and upset? Because his brain was helping him learn a lesson, solve a problem, develop a skill in the safety of his own bed! And I find that remarkable!

How Again Can Nightmares Me?

As individuals, as parents to children, as roommates or lovers, we will all experience nightmares. But I want to present the skill of positive reframing that once you begin to practice you can use for yourself or with your children or roommates or lover over and over again. You can handle the downs in life, those things in life that you fear or dread, because you are indeed prepared for them. An ancient primitive system kicks on in the dark of night and it is helping you!

The next time a nightmare keeps you or someone you love up at night introduce the idea that this dream is not something to erase or avoid or ignore, but one that you can be pleased with, that you can learn from, that you can smile about. By viewing bad dreams and nightmares in a positive way, as great nighttime teachers, we start to teach ourselves and those we love that we do have the inner strength to contend with life.

To read a similar notion as this one, go to: That Damn Dream Again by Jesse Bering, Ph.D. in Psychology Today.

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Copyright © 2009 Dr. Heidi Lepper, Ph.D.  All rights reserved.