How do bad dreams protect us? Why shouldn’t we be afraid of nightmares?
In the period when the Covid-19 epidemic spread rapidly, a strange phenomenon emerged: People were having strange dreams.
The number of nightmares was higher in countries where the virus was most spreading or devastating and where the most stringent measures were implemented.
With the closure measures, concerns about the health of the people we love were blended with other everyday thoughts, and people woke up with mixed feelings.
The dreams of the healthcare professionals at the front turned into a nightmare. A study of 114 doctors and 414 nurses in Wuhan, China and published in January found that more than a quarter of healthcare professionals frequently have nightmares.
It is also reported that nightmares are widespread in the general population during the tight closure periods applied due to the epidemic, and especially those with depression and anxiety problems are more sensitive. But all this is not surprising data for experts working on trauma.
Rachelle Ho, a doctoral student at McMaster University in Canada, says 2020 is a “chronic stress” era for those struggling on the front of the fight against Covid-19, such as healthcare professionals in Wuhan.
Stress that lasts for months or years and affects society as a whole is very unusual, and Ho says these can only be compared to wars. But we know that chronic stress has a significant impact on our mental functions.
Nightmares are known to be more common in societies that experience long-term stress. For example, a study of children aged 10-12 in the Gaza Strip found that more than half of the children had an average of 4 or more nightmares each week. Ho says children are particularly sensitive because their brains are still developing.
Nightmares are also strongly linked to a range of mental illnesses, but on the other hand, some fascinating dreams also help us to fit the emotions of the previous day, as Joanne Davis, a clinical psychologist at Tulsa University, said.
Understanding how bad dreams turn into nightmares is important for treating traumatized people.
How do bad dreams protect us?
Experts like Davis have begun to unravel the connections between our dreams and psychological disorders, and how our dreams play an important role in maintaining our emotional stability during our healthy periods.
When we sleep, we organize and remove our memories from the previous day, and while doing this, we take a light dust of our old memories and place them again.
However, we most often organize our most emotionally intense memories during the Rapid Eye Moving sleep phase (REM sleep), that is, when falling asleep or just before waking up. These memories with high emotional intensity make up our dreams.
A bad dream may protect a person during waking hours.
The “sleep to forget, sleep to remember” hypothesis argues that REM sleep strengthens our emotional memories and enables us to safely lift them to a corner of our mind, and also softens the emotional responses to what we experience later on.
For example, your boss yells at you at work, and you dream about it at night. The next day, when you meet your boss again, the emotional tone of your reaction to the event softens.
The idea that dreams play a role in taming our emotions is very interesting, but is there evidence?
When we switch to REM sleep, experiments have shown that parts of our brain, called both the hippocampus and the amygdala, are very active.
The hippocampus is the part of our brain that stores and stores memories and removes them when necessary, and the amygdala is the part that helps us process our emotions.
This underlies the researchers’ suggestion that the vivid, emotional and memorable dreams we see during the REM sleep phase are an indication that our brain stores memories by separating them from their emotional counterpart.
After a bad dream, for example, the part of the brain that helps us prepare for fear becomes more active, as if the dream prepared us for this situation.
Also, according to another experiment, the longer and stronger people feel fear in their dreams, the weaker the part of their brains that regulates emotions when they are shown pictures that will cause stress later on.
Perhaps the central amygdala in our brain that regulates and processes our emotions needs to do certain actions at bedtime to prepare for the next day. Perhaps being able to put aside the emotional burden of the previous day while asleep gives us the opportunity to make a new start from a new point in the morning.
According to a study of workers who work under stress, cortisol, the hormone that regulates our response to stress, is at its highest in the morning. This means that our resistance to stress is higher during the hours we wake up from sleep. While cortisol hormone is secreted in another part of the body, the amygdala region in our brain functions to identify stressful situations.
During REM sleep, our brain emits low-wavelength theta waves in the hippocampus, amygdala and neocortex regions. Studies on mice have shown that when mice are forced to do stressful things, their REM sleep takes longer when they fall asleep later, while theta waves emitted are more intense.
How should nightmares be treated?
It may be helpful to have a bad dream every now and then, but having nightmares constantly indicates a very different level of problem.
“The nightmare is like a tripping in the brain. Your brain is trying to process an emotional event, but it is reappearing like a stuck record because you woke up in the middle and you couldn’t see it all,” says psychologist Joanne Davis.
Explaining that some of his patients have had nightmares for decades, Davis continues, “If you continue to be accepted for a long time, it becomes a habit. You are afraid of nightmares, maybe you are trying not to sleep or taking medicine to quickly fall asleep,” Davis continues.
Clinical psychologist Davis works with people who have been traumatized. These include veterans, children of people with ailments such as manic depressive (bipolar).
She uses revealing, calming, and therapy called ERRT as her method. In ERRT or rescription therapy, the patient is urged to remember and write down nightmares or rewrite them with different endings.
In this method, the patient may not see his repetitive nightmare with the new ending he wrote, but he starts not seeing the nightmare or seeing a version that does not have such a strong effect. The frequency of the nightmare is decreasing and gradually disappearing.
Davis thinks treating nightmares merely as a symptom of a bigger problem is not an adequate approach to treatment.
“Just 10-20 years ago, nightmares were viewed as signs of post-traumatic stress in psychology. But now, there is a shift in approach to looking at nightmares as signs of multiple problems. If you can treat nightmares first, you will solve some other problems such as depression and substance use.” ” says.
Davis thinks it’s also important to look at nightmares as clues to future problems. We can see emotionally charged dreams sometimes on the night of an important event and sometimes within 5-7 days after that event.
Cardiff University psychology professor Penny Lewis and her team think that we store everyday memories immediately after they happen, but can process things with deeper personal meanings with a delay.
Training chronically nightmares to control their dreams can reduce the frequency of these nightmares.
This treatment, called Image Rehearsal Therapy (IRT), has been successful in small groups, but researchers are not yet sure how this success was achieved through a mechanism. These types of therapies aim to give patients the rest they need to do their activities properly, by looking for ways to sleep through the night without waking up.
Although significant advances have been made over the past few years in understanding the cause of nightmares and their treatment, the strict curfews announced during the coronavirus epidemic have created new challenges for those receiving treatment.
A small-scale study on French patients undergoing Image Rehearsal Therapy to eliminate the causes of recurring nightmares showed that two-thirds of the Covid-19 outbreak returned to the very beginning.
All of these patients who had nightmares from two nights a week to almost every night responded positively to the treatment and the frequency of their nightmares decreased. However, after 4 years of treatment, patients experienced a great regression in 2020, and most of them reported that they had an average of 19 nightmares per month.
Researchers Benjamin Putois, Caroline Sierro and Wendy Leslie from Lyon University said that during the coronavirus crisis, “the increase in the frequency of nightmares shows that not only traumatic memories are re-energized, but also the need to regulate emotions.”
The next time you have a bad dream for him, remember that it’s the brain’s way of organizing your emotions, throwing off the troubles of the previous day. Psychologists say that occasional bad dreams are beneficial for most people, but if nightmares still come regularly and start to affect your health then they come together when it comes to worrying.