Lost in a haunted forest? Hanging off a cliff? Soundless screaming? Most of us can remember snippets of a vividly terrifying dream, and the fear that comes with it. But apart from the bitter memory, and slight lack of sleep that comes with it, your life will seem unchanged. In actual fact, nightmares are strongly tied to your overall health – mental and physical. Dreaming is harmless (let’s get that straight) but dreaming behavior can reveal certain diseases and induce others. With that in mind, what are your nightmares telling you about your health?
What causes nightmares?
To understand how nightmares impact your body and mind, it’s important to understand what they are. Dreams (bad and good) are recent experiences that weave themselves into your memories, creating a new memory which can be referenced to later. Think of your brain as a library; it stores life experiences just like a librarian stores books. But libraries don’t only carry romance novels and fairy tales. They’re home to Stephen King’s Carrie and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein – which you guessed it, represent nightmares. These types of dreams stem from recent chilling events such as watching a scary movie, being the victim of a car accident, or witnessing other traumas. Quite naturally, they cause an unpleasant emotional response such as fear, stress, or anxiety.
Now that you know what a nightmare is, when and why do nightmares happen?
Dreams occur during quiet sleep periods known as Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep. In fact, REM sleep is the only time at which you can integrate emotional material into long term memories, making it indispensable for mental health and proper cerebral development. If your REM sleep is undisturbed, you’ll sleep peacefully. On the other hand, if REM Sleep is interrupted – due to breathing problems, everyday stress, hormonal changes etc. – your emotions just linger, causing nightmares. While occasional nightmares are totally normal, regular ones can underline more serious health issues…
How they can affect your health?
Most nightmares will wake you up with a jolt, pounding heartbeat, and a few sweat drops rolling down your forehead. Once awake, you’ll distract yourself for an hour or two and head right back to sleep – you know the drill. If nightmares happen occasionally, your health and lifestyle won’t feel affected. However, if nightmares happen recurrently, your body and mind will take a toll. From intense sleep deprivation to heart disease, regular bad dreams can lead to greater health issues than expected.
According to a 2003 Swedish study, older men and women’s increase in irregular heartbeats and spasmodic chest pain lead to more nightmares, which in turn, increase cardiac issues, and chest pain – a vicious cycle. The elderlies’ natural health deterioration and nightmare-induced stress combined, were the reasons for higher heart attack rates in the 40 to 64 year old population. Heart attacks were found to occur during REM sleep (our dreaming period), in which breathing intensifies, eyes twitch, and muscles paralyze. The brain’s heightened stimulation paired with a senior’s poor cardiac health increases their vulnerability to heart disease.
Parkinson’s and neurodegenerative diseases
Those affected by REM sleep disorder, in which they unconsciously act out their dreams (i.e. kicking, talking, etc.), are at greater risk of developing Parkinson’s disease. But why is that exactly? The brain’s nerve pathways that would normally paralyze your muscles during REM sleep are no longer working. The body can therefore physically act out dreams, resulting in midnight kicks, punches, talking and sometimes shouting. People with Parkinson’s or any other neurodegenerative diseases suffer from this sleep disorder, while healthy people don’t.
According to the British Journal of Psychiatry, kids who regularly have nightmares are more prone to developing psychotic symptoms – such as hearing voices, feeling paranoid, and imagining people hurting them – later in adolescence. The risk of such occurrence is at a low 5%, says Thompson, MD, associate clinical professor in psychiatry at the University of Warwick in Coventry. So, please, don’t worry too much if your son or daughter has a nightmare once or twice a week! But the value in studying the relationship between nightmares and psychotic episodes, despite its low probability, is in identifying early risk factors for mental illnesses like schizophrenia.
Nightmares can cause illness just like it can reveal them. If you’re nightmares are focused around the inability to breathe – suffocation, drowning, claustrophobia etc. – it can be that you’re ACTUALLY not breathing at night. Sleep apnea is a sleep disorder in which your breathing stops and starts, keeping heaps of oxygen from your brain. This leads to loud snoring, morning headaches, day-time sleepiness and nightmares – due to disrupted REM sleep.
How to get rid of nightmares?
There are several methods to limit those nightmarish slumbers. To limit pre-sleep stress, which can disrupt REM or dream sleep, try meditating in the morning. Clear your mind from everyday anxiety and replace it with positive energy. Keeping a regular wake-sleep schedule is equally important in supporting your internal clock, as is exercise! Both will help you snooze more soundly and feel more relaxed.
If natural remedies don’t work, go see your doctor for help. He may prescribe sleeping pills or introduce you to Imagery Reversal Therapy (IRT) – a cognitive-behavioral treatment most commonly used for PTSD patients – depending on the frequency and intensity of your nightmares.