Note to the reader: This article looks at possible causes of nightmares, rather than trying to cover specific, individual dreams; you may find your dream covered – like dreaming of the death of a loved one – in my blog pages (more content is being added all the time).
Dream question: “I keep having nightmares – I wake up sweating, my heart is pounding, the content is really graphic. Can you help?”
Dreams are often symbolic messages to draw your attention to a specific situation. Sometimes the only way they will get your attention is by the horrific nature of their content.
Nightmares are bad dreams which can stay with you for hours, days or even years. They are often frightening, graphic and may cause you to wake up in a panic, crying or attempting to scream – that’s really what separates them from other types of dreams.
Nightmares can be caused by a number of things. Lack of sleep, medication, bereavement, changes in diet and stress can all be a factor – even what you watch before you go to bed. Sometimes just a room being too hot is enough to cause a a bad dream, which is why you wake up sweating (although this is also a symptom of the flight /fight response in stress).
If you’re having difficulties at work or at home, or if there are unresolved issues around events from your past these can show up in the shape of a bad dream.
Sometimes the reason the content is so graphic or unsettling is so that it to gets our attention – which often nightmares do. This makes sure you take steps to acknowledge the ‘problem’; it’s a bit like the volume going up until you realise the music is so loud you have to do something about it.
Seeking an interpretation can help to explore and decipher the message – this, in itself, has been known to stop the dream if it’s reoccurring. Talking to a professional can also help if you know what’s behind the nightmare. If you are worried about the cause or effect of your nightmares, particularly if it’s affecting your sleep or mood, be sure to speak to your doctor as soon as possible. Lucid dreaming is a technique which may help with nightmares in the right circumstances.
Old Hag Syndrome – the feeling of a presence in the room – is a common experience which feels like a nightmare. This is often accompanied with a feeling of paralysis/that you can’t move, or shout out. (Or if you do manage to speak it’s a “strange” sound). This can be a symptom of stress, or sleep deprivation. It can also be accompanied with a feeling of pressure on the chest. The paralysis should only last a few minutes but it does feel scary. It can also feel like a dream within a dream – where there are many “levels” to the dream, you think you’ve woken up then realise you haven’t (a bit like what happens in the movie Inception).
Have a chat with your doctor if it’s worrying you, but also make sure you’re winding down before bedtime and managing stress as much as possible. (There will be another, fuller article on this coming soon.)
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