Nightmares are the most dreaded aspect of sleep. But the dreams we don’t want to have could actually be the ones we need the most.
According Lauri Loewenberg, a certified dream analyst, nightmares tend to be “a very good indication that the dreamer’s psyche is in the red zone and some issues in their life need desperate attention." Our bad dreams, according to Lowenberg, may function as a sort of slap in the face to highlight our deep-rooted concerns. “They're most often connected to our most difficult issues," she says, "issues we don’t know how to handle or those we have ignored for too long." And while nightmares bring these issues to the surface, it's the waking dreamer's job to acknowledge and deal with the issues onto which nightmares shed light.
Some believe nightmares have therapeutic value, too. A recent video published by New York Magazine investigates the positive aspects of bad dreams. All the fears and anxieties that weighs on us during the day, the video says, are transformed into nightmares. Why? Since our brains seem to perceive bad dreams as real encounters, the fears they cause subsequently become memories, which are less worrisome because they've already happened. Nightmares, therefore, might be the brain's way of creating distance from our fears, a task we find difficult when we're awake.
While research on nightmares is never concrete, a study by the Berkeley Sleep and Neuroimaging Laboratory seems to support the idea of nightmares as a coping mechanism. On two separate occasions, researchers scanned the brains of participants as they viewed emotionally arousing images. Half of the participants were shown the images in the evening and following morning. The other viewed the images in the morning and evening of the same day.
Those who'd slept between viewings showed a remarkable decrease in emotional reaction and reduced activity in the amygdala, the brain's emotion-processing department. By managing emotional experiences during the dream state, when levels of the neurotransmitter norepinephrine are low, we protect ourselves against reacting emotionally to those same experiences during the day. In a sense, nightmares could be our brain’s way of building callouses to lessen the harm of the real life trauma.
Rosalind Cartwright, PhD, professor emeritus of psychology at Rush University in Chicago, shared a similar belief with WebMD. A nightmare, she explained, is “almost like having an internal therapist, because you associate to previous similar feelings, and you work through the emotion related to it so that it is reduced by morning.”
And that recurring nightmare about your ex? The one in which you relive that relationship-fracturing blowout? A study from Cartwright and her colleagues says it may not be such a bad thing. Researchers assessed the bad dreams of divorced, depressed patients and discovered, unsurprisingly, that they often concerned an ex-spouse. Those that dreamt about their ex or a previous relationship were in better moods the next morning than those who did not. Working through their issues during the night, Cartwright believes, helped eventually lift their depression.
Some psychologists use nightmares to help treat lingering issues. Loewenberg says she's counseled many victims of physically abusive relationships who, years later, are still having nightmares about them. She uses a nightmare re-writing exercise in which they write out their nightmare, altered to include the conversation they'd like to have with their ex. By rewriting their dream on paper, they actually change the nightmare itself until it stops occurring.
Such unfinished emotional business is a huge part of our night’s sleep. Loewenberg believes chronic nightmares in adults may be linked with lingering past trauma. “Chronic nightmares are a cry for help from the psyche,” she says. But recurring or not, nightmares, she believes, are a sign that some underlying issue requires attention.
Psychotherapist and author of Nightmares: How to Make Sense of Your Darkest Dreams, Dr. Alex Lukeman agrees. “The important thing to remember about nightmares is that they serve us in some way. They are a gift, not a curse,” he told the Daily Mail. “The nightmare is a way for our unconscious mind to get our conscious, waking attention.”
By learning the “language” of symbols in our dreams, Lukeman believes we can resolve the hidden problems in our lives. “Nightmares can be extremely distressing for people,” he says, “but they are trying to warn us that we are caught up in some internal conflict needing resolution for the sake of our well-being.” If we can recognize the symbols in our bad dreams, we can relate them to the problems in our own lives. And these problems may be so deeply embedded in our psyche that, if not for our nightmares, we wouldn’t be aware of them at all. “Knowledge is power when it comes to dark dreams,” says Lukeman.
Loewenberg maintains that our bad dreams are as beneficial as our good ones — and provide an important opportunity to make positive changes in our waking life. “The bad dream is your brutally honest best friend,” she says. “You may not like what this friend has to say but it is always in your best interest,” she says.