January 28, 2014
Bad Dreams And Nightmares Not Always Driven By Fear
A new study by researchers at the University of Montreal has looked at the differences between nightmares and bad dreams and found that fear does not always play a major role in either type of unpleasant dream.
"Physical aggression is the most frequently reported theme in nightmares. Moreover, nightmares become so intense they will wake you up. Bad dreams, on the other hand, are especially haunted by interpersonal conflicts," the study authors wrote in their report, recently published by the journal Sleep.
"Death, health concerns and threats are common themes in nightmares," said co-author Geneviève Robert, who worked on the report as part of her doctoral thesis at the university.
Robert said it would be incorrect to think that these themes characterize all nightmares.
"Sometimes, it is the feeling of a threat or a ominous atmosphere that causes the person to awaken,” she said. “I'm thinking of one narrative, in which the person saw an owl on a branch and was absolutely terrified."
The scientists cited theories that say dreams bring a catharsis for the stresses of daily living or reflect a disturbance in the nervous system. Regardless of their nature, the scientific community often agrees that everybody dreams, usually during the phase of sleep called REM sleep, which most individuals go through three to five times an evening. Most sleepers forget their dreams immediately and heavy dreamers recall them more effortlessly. Five to six percent of individuals report having nightmares.
"Nightmares are not a disease in themselves but can be a problem for the individual who anticipates them or who is greatly distressed by their nightmares,” said study author Antonio Zadra, a psychologist at the university. “People who have frequent nightmares may fear falling asleep – and being plunged into their worst dreams. Some nightmares are repeated every night. People who are awakened by their nightmares cannot get back to sleep, which creates artificial insomnia.”
Researchers have found that nightmares are treatable. Through visualization tactics, patients can learn to alter the scenario of their dreams and re-run the nightmare scenario with a cognitive imagery strategy. The technique can result in the dreamer confronting their threat or a resolution of the scenario through supernatural assistance, like an intervention from God.
In an attempt to understand the distinction between bad dreams and nightmares, the scientists asked over 570 participants to keep a dream journal over the course of two to five weeks as an alternative to simply ticking off themes listed in a survey, a previously-used faster but less valid method.
"I'm in a closet,” said one journal entry cited by the researchers. “A strip of white cloth is forcing me to crouch. Instead of clothes hanging, there are large and grotesquely shaped stuffed animals like cats and dogs with grimacing teeth and bulging eyes. They're hanging and wiggling towards me. I feel trapped and frightened."
After analyzing 253 nightmares and 431 bad dreams, researchers recorded the narratives of almost 10,000 dreams. They found that fear is typically absent in bad dreams and in a third of nightmares. The team also concluded that dreams, bad dreams, and nightmares are part of the same emotional and neurocognitive course.