Sleep Science

Nightmare: Causes and How to Avoid them?

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You are with your girlfriend at your friend's birthday party enjoying the booze. You then notice a ravishing girl at the other end of the room. Walking straight to her you start flirting. The conversation becomes interesting and you feel you have a connection with her. Then you remember that you already have a girlfriend, so you leave the ravishing girl and start looking around for her.  

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You find your lovely girlfriend in the dark bedroom sobbing with her head on the knee. When you tenderly caress her shoulders she looks up and you realize in horror that it isValak—the demon from the movie.  It starts chasing you but you can't move your legs. You turn and try with all your might, but you can already feel the demon's breath on the back of your neck….Suddenly you jump up from your bed to see your girlfriend sleeping soundly by your side. Phew…it was just a nightmare.

We have all been there.  The hair-raising blood-curdling imageries that disturb our peaceful night's rest are intriguing and a little scary to think about. But is there a cure for it?

What are dreams?

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Dreams have always baffled mankind. Their meanings and reasons were always a subject of debate. It has seeded the thoughts of philosophers, scientists and psychologists. Volumes have been written on dreams by great minds like Sigmund Freud. Still, it remains an elusive topic.

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A dedicated branch of science called Oneirology study the dreams and their causes in detail. It is found out that dreams mostly occur at the Rapid Eye Movement (REM) stage of the sleep cycle- when brain activity is as high as being awake. As the REM cycle usually occurs in the early morning hours, we tend to have nightmares, which can last a few seconds to 20-30 minutes, at the time.

What causes a nightmare?

Most wonder why they see nightmares; after all, isn't it a childhood thing? It is not really. Recent studies have proven that 2 to 8 percent of the adult population is plagued by nightmares. The exact reason for having scary dreams have not been found out yet. Still, sleep researchers point towards many suspects in their list. The researchers attribute many possible reasons for nightmares. These reasons can vary from physical to psychological and from person to person.

Physical ailments and diseases can be a cause of uncomfortable sleep and trigger nightmares. Use of narcotics, tranquilizers,  overconsumption of alcohol, withdrawal from some medicines and so on are also cited as causes. If you feel that there is an increase in the nightmare frequency after changing a medicine, it definitely is something to talk to your doctor about.

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Psychological problems can also manifest as scary dreams. Anxiety and depression, schizophrenia and so forth are the first ones on the list. Sleep deprivation, uncomfortable sleeping atmosphere, post-traumatic stress disorder or even watching a scary movie or reading a book can result inincubus. In a few, the nightmares become so frequent that it is characterized as a disease called nightmare disorder.

What are the Health problems?

More than the shock of watching your girlfriend turning into Valak,— which indeed is a difficult image to get out of your head—scary dreams can cause many health issues.

After a bout of worst nightmares, our blood pressure shoots high, we become sweaty and thirsty. The sudden increase in blood pressure is not something to be treated lightly. Frequent occurrences can cause damage in blood vessels and can particularly be harmful to the heart and kidney.

Studies also prove that chronic nightmares can cause sleep deprivation, psychological problems like feeling forlorn and depressed. It can also cause sudden weight gain and obesity.Nightmares thus are not just bad dreams but can have a significant effect on your well-being if left unchecked.

What are the treatments?

The good news is that 70% of the nightmare disorders can be treated and cured effectively. If scary dreams are not associated with PTSD, a number of psychological treatments can be used. They include cognitive behavioural therapy; exposure, relaxation, and rescripting therapy; hypnosis; lucid dreaming therapy and so on.

Image rehearsal therapy (IRT) is a cognitive behavioral therapy technique which is very similar to defending Boggarts—the shapeless entities in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, which takes the shape of the worst fear of the person in front of it. They have to be defended by depicting them comically inside the head while casting the enchantment Riddikulus.  In IRT dream content and images are written down from memory. The nightmare is re-scripted to a more positive one. The new dream is practiced for 10 to 20 minutes per day while the patient is awake.

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We can easily follow other simple steps to make sure that we are not haunted by nightmares

Relax your mind and body

Learn to de-stress before going to bed. Avoid over thinking aboutthe life'sproblems in the bed. Simple breathing exercises, meditationandYoga can help to relax your mind and body.

Watch your diet

Avoid caffeine, smokingandoverconsumption of alcohol before going to bed.

Be comfortable 

Create a cozy atmosphere for sleeping. Avoid distractions like mobile phones and laptops in the bedroom.

Keep a routine

It is best if you can go to bed at the same time every day. Late nights make us overtired and can lead to nightmares.