Bad dreams serve a very specific purpose in our lives, if a recent study is to be believed.
For many people, the occasional nightmare and bad dream is a fact of life.
Research suggests that between 55 and 85% of people will have the odd disruption to their sleep here and there, in the form of a nightmare or a bad dream. Until recently, though, very little has been known about why we get these kinds of sleep interruptions might occur. Though it is well known that nightmares occur during slow wave sleep, or the deepest part of your non-REM night cycle, other than that they have been a mystery.
A new study from the University of Geneva has sought to put nightmares under the microscope, though, with some fascinating results. The study, which used high-density electroencephalography (EEG) to examine brain activity during participants sleep cycles, found that nightmares triggers a certain part of a person’s brain. The study also found that, upon waking, those who had suffered a bad dream were better equipped to deal with fears and scary situations than those who did not.
Could this be the scientific purpose of bad dreams, then? To help us process our fears and anxieties in the real world?
“For the first time, we’ve identified the neural correlates of fear when we dream and have observed that similar regions are activated when experiencing fear in both sleep and wakeful states,” Lampros Perogamvros, researcher on the study, said in a statement.
The study found that nightmares often triggered the parts of the brain that deal with feeling, processing, regulating and responding to fear. Each of the 89 participants in the study was equipped with a dream diary to write down their memories of the night before. Then, at the conclusion of the research, they all underwent an MRI, where they were shown “emotionally-negative images”, such as ones that might trigger fear, as well as “neutral images” for a comparison point.
“We found that the longer someone had felt fear in their dreams, the less the insula, cingulate and amygdala were activated when the same person looked at the negative pictures,” explained Virginie Sterpenich, a researcher on the study. “In addition, the activity in the medial prefrontal cortex, which is known to inhibit the amygdala in the event of fear, increased in proportion to the number of frightening dreams.”
These researchers believe that bad dreams can therefore be seen as a bit of a training ground to help us confront what truly frightens us in the waking world. “Dreams may be considered as a real training for our future reactions, and may potentially prepare us to face real life dangers,” said Perogamvros.
Still, though, nightmares and bad dreams are sleep disruptors and should be regulated as much as possible. Speaking to Stylist, psychologist Dr Sheri Jacobson of Harley Street Therapy explained that the best way to treat sleep disruptions was to make sure that you weren’t increasing sleep anxiety by putting even more pressure on yourself to have it.
“Don’t observe every minute of sleep, or lack of it,” she says. “Sleep tracking devices are helpful, but they can contribute to the problem of watching and monitoring every moment of sleep. For some people, it might be best to let go of that.”
Jacobson adds: “You can easily get into a sleep worry spiral, where it becomes harder and harder to get to sleep. You’re monitoring your sleep levels, your self-criticising and you’re adding negative thoughts and self-judgement along the way.”
Her solution: “Honour your body’s need for sleep. But don’t put too much pressure on yourself. Be compassionate.”
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