Lena Pan/Shutterstock
Source: Lena Pan/Shutterstock

They are the grim subjects of centuries-old paintings, in which a black horse (or "night mare") hovers near a sleeping figure.

They have been the terrifying theme of movies, past and present––from I Wake Up Screaming (1941), to the Nightmare on Elm Street series.

Trying to understand much of what has been written about the human phenomenon known as a nightmare is difficult for a layperson. Still, as one who habitually suffers bad dreams, it was a subject I wanted to know more about:

What is a nightmare? A very disturbing dream, often causing the victim to wake in fear and anxiety, to cry out and thrash around in bed, or even to sleepwalk. 

Who has nightmares? Almost everyone, from time to time, beginning in early childhood and usually––but not always––diminishing with age. 

What causes nightmares? In adults, a number of things, including certain drugs (or withdrawal from them) and stress in a one's waking life, such as problems in a marriage or relationship, changing jobs, moving, pregnancy, or concerns about finances. Oddly enough, some people have nightmares completely unrelated to anything that happens during their day. Those individuals are thought to be more creative and sensitive—instead of fearing these dreams, some are able to regard nightmares as merely interesting or even fascinating.

What can be done about nightmares? Depending on what's causing them, most will cease once the cause is removed. Until that happens, anxiety during daylight hours can creep into our dreams, and cause us to wake in a cold sweat. (Being frightened is usually what wakes us up, ending the nightmare.)

A process called "decoding" can help a nightmare sufferer. This involves learning to analyze and interpret dreams to make them less frightening. One technique is to write down or draw pictures of what occurred in the dream. But if nightmares are unusually distressing or emotionally debilitating, a therapist may be the answer.

The Nightmare, painting by Henry Fuseli / Public Domain
Source: The Nightmare, painting by Henry Fuseli / Public Domain

Common Nightmares

I'm fascinated by bad dreams that recur, night after night, and may be common to many (but not all) of us.

The following are some common anxiety dreams:

The Student's Nightmare. Almost every one has had this one, and it can recur even years after schooling. (I still have it from time to time). You are running down the hall, frantically looking for your classroom because you know there is going to be an exam that day and you haven't studied for it. But you can't remember the last time you were there, or what the class is about. 

The Actor's Nightmare. Similar to the student's nightmare, except that you are acting in a play, but you can't remember which one, or any of your lines. (There is even a very funny One-Act called "The Actor's Nightmare" in which the male lead enters dressed for a Shakespeare play only to find that the rest of the cast is doing a Neil Simon show, so he rushes off to change, then comes back on stage to find everyone in Elizabethan costume, and so it goes. If you are having this nightmare, you will likely wake up before the audience starts throwing things.)

The "Help! I'm Falling!" Nightmare. You are in a very high place or, like Jimmy Stewart in Vertigo, chasing a fleeing figure across a rooftop when you slip and fall over the edge. It's a long way down, and you are screaming and clawing the air in terror, but you wake up before you hit the ground.

The "I Can't Get Away!" Nightmare. Something like the reverse of the previous dream, but now it's you who are being pursued, running as fast as you can but losing ground to your pursuer, minute by minute. It's not uncommon to wake up from this nightmare out of breath.

While not technically a nightmare, a phenomenon called Exploding Head Syndrome, or EHS, can disturb your sleep as well. It typically involves a loud noise, like a gun shot, a door slamming, or a telephone ringing, which you think is real, but is only in your head.

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