Nightmares have received a lot of negative press over the years.
While it is not known for certain why nightmares occur, my clinical experience tells me that we almost certainly have them to try and resolve strong emotions that might be getting in our way during the daytime.
In my work, many people report nightmares. Over the decades, I have noticed that the central, intense emotion in their dreams is almost always the same emotional ‘theme’ that is presenting as a current difficulty in their lives. For example, it could be failure, despair, helplessness, isolation, fear, ineffectiveness or sadness.
The exception to this is when people have ‘repetitive’ dreams for years where the central, intense theme relates to their past (usually childhood trauma) not to their present circumstances. Still, the central, intense emotion felt in the dream is exactly specific to the dominant emotion felt during the past trauma – which has clearly not yet been resolved. Interestingly, once resolved these nightmares disappear.
So, why might this be the case?
Research tells us that all animals use an ‘habituation’ strategy to calm down, stay open to learning – and minimise ‘freezing with fear’.
For example, we know that during ‘habituation’ our neurons ‘learn’ to recognise certain stimuli as harmless, and by the 10th repeated stimulus a bundle of axons is only 1/20th as reactive as it was to the initial stimuli. Over time there is also a decrease in the number of synapses ‘devoted’ to the initial fearful stimuli.
But, for habituation to occur, any stimulation must not be too noxious or extreme or we will ‘sensitise’ our brain, teaching it to maintain and even exacerbate the intensity of our emotions.
For example, if we ‘pay attention’ to frightening mentations when we are awake we ‘sensitise’ our brains and we learn, consolidate and retrieve that information much better than if we did not pay attention. This is an essential process so that we can be responsive to threat in the real world.
So, our brains have a dilemma. While we must hold ourselves in sustained contact with fraught emotions to resolve them through habituation, we cannot allow those emotions to be too intense, or we will ‘sensitise’ our brains and ‘learn’ them even more profoundly. A very delicate balance.
Interestingly, our brains seem to have found a solution. It seems to be one of ‘habituating’ intense emotion only within certain contexts: mostly (although not limited to) when we are dreaming or crying.
For example, when we sleep our motor cortex is paralysed by glycine-containing interneurons to prevent us from acting out our dreams.
However, during our dreams (especially during REM sleep when our dreams tend to be very vivid) our amygdalae (seat of threatening mentations) is highly activated. Meanwhile, our brainstem is busy producing and releasing GABA (our chief inhibitory neurotransmitter) to induce sedation and relaxation, while also sending signals to relax our muscles globally.
Similarly, when we cry, we activate our ‘relaxed’ parasympathetic nervous system while at the same time we release sedating endorphins and oxytocin to calm our brains while we are staying (through our crying) in sustained contact with our sadness. This allows us to ‘habituate’ to our intense emotion and move towards resolving it.
In both cases our brains are countering the intense, frightening and stressful emotions by simultaneously releasing powerful sedative agents so that the stimuli are not too noxious or overwhelming – allowing us to successfully habituate and calm down.
In this way, it is important to realise that we never need to be afraid of nightmares or crying. Instead we should welcome them both as methods of restoration and recalibration. Both are likely to help us remain emotionally stable while freeing us from the imprisonment of unrelenting emotional burden.