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Why Do We Dream? The Role of Dreams and Nightmares

Fight-or-flight training

One of the areas of the brain that’s most active during dreaming is the amygdala - the part of the brain associated with the survival instinct and the fight-or-flight response.

One theory suggests dreams may be the brain’s way of getting you ready to deal with a threat. Fortunately, the brainstem sends out nerve signals during REM sleep that relax your muscles. That way you don’t try to run or punch in your sleep.

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Why Do We Dream? The Role of Dreams and Nightmares

Why Do We Dream? The Role of Dreams and Nightmares

https://www.healthline.com/health/why-do-we-dream

healthline.com

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Key Ideas

Dreams as therapists

Your dreams may be ways of confronting emotional dramas in your life. 

Because your brain is operating at a much more emotional level than when you’re awake, your brain may make connections regarding your feelings that your conscious self wouldn’t make.

Fight-or-flight training

One of the areas of the brain that’s most active during dreaming is the amygdala - the part of the brain associated with the survival instinct and the fight-or-flight response.

One theory suggests dreams may be the brain’s way of getting you ready to deal with a threat. Fortunately, the brainstem sends out nerve signals during REM sleep that relax your muscles. That way you don’t try to run or punch in your sleep.

Dreams as your muse

One theory for why we dream is that it helps facilitate our creative tendencies. 

Without the logic filter, you might normally use in your waking life that can restrict your creative flow, your thoughts and ideas have no restrictions when you’re sleeping.

Dreams as memory aids

Research shows that sleep helps store memories. If you learn new information and sleep on it, you’ll be able to recall it better than if asked to remember that information without the benefit of sleep.

Dreams may help the brain more efficiently store important information while blocking out stimuli that could interfere with memory and learning.

Nightmares

Regularly occurring scary dreams can be labeled a sleeping disorder if the nightmares:

  • cause you to be anxious about going to sleep
  • lead to frequent disruptions of your sleep
  • bring about other sleeping or psychological problems

Health conditions

  • You’re more likely to have more vivid dreams if you’ve had some restless nights.
  • Being pregnant is also a catalyst for vivid dreaming. Increased hormone production affects the way your brain processes thoughts and emotions.
  • Mental health disorders such as depression and anxiety, as well as mood-related conditions, can trigger intense and sometimes disturbing or negative dreams and nightmares.

Foods

Certain foods lead to wilder or better dreams.

Food that causes you to wake up throughout the night may result in you waking up more frequently in the REM stage. When that happens, you’ll probably remember more of your dreams.

Daily activities

Runners and other serious fitness enthusiasts tend to spend less time in dreamy REM sleep, which is one of the lightest stages of sleep. 

Also, the more effectively you can de-stress during the day, the less likely you’ll be to bring stress and anxiety to bed. That should help cut down on nightmares and interrupted sleep each night.

How to remember your dreams

The dreams you remember are the ones that are ongoing when you awaken. To help recall your dreams, tell yourself as you’re falling asleep that you want to remember your dream. If that’s your last thought, you may be more likely to wake up with a dream still somewhat fresh in your memory.

Try to remember as much of your dream as soon as you wake up. Try to grasp whatever images or memories you have of your dream and write them down.

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Nightmares

Nightmares are broadly defined as frightening dreams that result in some degree of awakening from sleep. 

Nightmares themselves contribute to disrupted sleep not only by waking th...

Night terrors

Night terrors are very intense episodes of fright during dreams. These frightening episodes are often accompanied by screaming or yelling, as well as by physical movement such as leaping out of bed or flailing in panic. 

Research suggests that sleep terrors occur during non-REM sleep dreaming, while nightmares tend to happen during REM sleep. 

Recurring dreams
Recurring dreams are dreams that re-appear with some pattern of regularity. 

Studies suggest that recurring dreams may contain more threatening content than regular dreams. Research suggests links between recurring dreams and psychological distress in both adults and children.

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Trauma and nightmares

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The effects of trauma on sleep

If an action against the threat is irrelevant or impossible - as it would be if the trauma happened long ago - then emotion-coping efforts like dreaming may be useful to get on with our lives.

If the threat will be encountered repeatedly, such as abuse, then waking problem-solving action is necessary.

Nightmares

Nightmares happen later in sleep when dreams are longest, and the content is bizarre and emotional. Nightmares wake the sleeper into full consciousness and clear memory of the dream. It temporarily relieves the negative emotion.

As we develop the skills for managing negative emotions while we are awake, nightmares will reduce in frequency.

Our sleep-wake pattern

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The lifestyle imbalance

Thomas Edison said that sleep is "a bad habit." Like Edison, we seem to think of sleep as an adversary and try to fight it at every turn. The average American sleeps less than the recommended seven hours per night, mostly due to electric lights, television, computers, and smartphones. 

However, we are ignoring the intricate journey we're designed to take when we sleep.

Stage One Sleep

When we fall asleep, the nearly 86 billion neurons in our brain starts to fire evenly and rhythmically. Our sensory receptors become muffled at the same time.

The first stage of shallow sleep lasts for about 5 minutes.

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