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What Your Nightmares Are Trying to Tell You

Idiopathic nightmares' benefits for relativity and emotional integration.

Johannes Plenio / Unsplash
Source: Johannes Plenio / Unsplash

A new study published in the academic journal Dreaming suggests that dreams are not only essential to our sleep cycles, but they also play an important role in our waking life, even bad dreams and nightmares.

Psychologist Olivia Kuhn, a co-author of the new research, theorizes that “experiencing a dream’s emotional tone and the way the mind responds to the dream impacts the dreamer’s psychological pattern of orienting to and framing their waking experiences.”

According to Kuhn, dreams can be separated into two categories:

  1. Non-disturbing dreams contain a relatively pleasant or neutral emotional tone. They do not cause the dreamer to feel upset and the dreamer stays asleep during them. Morning memory of non-disturbing dreams seems to result in decreases in negative emotion that day.
  2. Disturbing dreams are a less common dream form that includes any combination of bad dreams and nightmares. Bad dreams are distinct from nightmares in that during a nightmare the dreamer wakes up from the unpleasant emotional content, images, or storyline while bad dreams also have unpleasant emotional content but do not cause the dreamer to wake up.

It gets even more nuanced from there. Different forms of nightmares include post-traumatic, recurrent, and idiopathic:

  • Post-traumatic nightmares are where the nightmare onset begins following a traumatic experience of a potential threat to one’s life or witnessing a potential threat to someone else’s life. Post-traumatic nightmares are often intensely vivid and distressing.
  • Recurrent nightmares are where the dream content is repetitive during one’s lifetime; they may occur without being preceded by a traumatic experience
  • Idiopathic nightmares often include content related to fear, aggression, and death and usually arise during periods of increased life stress

In Kuhn’s study, the primary focus was on bad dreams and nightmares. They found that:

  1. Morning memory of idiopathic nightmares resulted in decreases in negative emotion that day
  2. Comparatively, the morning memory of the combination of bad dreams and idiopathic nightmares in a given night resulted in increases in negative emotion that day

This means that even though we might look at all bad dreams as bad experiences, they might actually serve a purpose and, when dealt with properly, they may benefit us.

“Different kinds of disturbed dreams might affect our emotionality differently because their purpose is to capture our attention onto different outcomes,” explains Kuhn.

Kuhn explains that a combination of bad dreams and nightmares may function to focus our attention on how we orient to and frame the day. Insofar as these dreams indicate stress, we may feel compelled to resolve or share (with a psychotherapist) what is contributing to the increased stress so that it can be processed and released.

More specifically, idiopathic nightmares may help us feel better the next day because of the following reasons:

  • Relativity. Having a nightmare and waking up from it can help people feel better about their current reality. In the morning, the individual feels better compared with the stress of the prior day that might have elicited the nightmare.
  • Emotional integration. Waking from an idiopathic nightmare during the night and then feeling less negative the next morning may aid in the process of emotional integration that occurs in psychologically healthy individuals. Because the nightmarish emotional tone occurred during the night, once morning arrives, enough integration has occurred and there is relief from emotional negativity.

According to Kuhn, if someone has been coping with prolonged waking stress (relational stress, combat-related stress, or more) dream recurrence is a reminder that the stress needs to be processed at a deeper level.

She advises paying attention to one’s life circumstances in a way that feels safe and supportive. This may include:

  • Working with a psychotherapist who can support one’s sharing about their dreams, perhaps to notice patterns over time and process life stressors
  • Journaling the dream and or illustrating the dream in detail, either verbally or visually, and changing the dream’s ending. Next, throughout each evening before bedtime, the individual may narrate the new dream aloud, not the old dream, for a few minutes. This process of recording, changing, and rehearsing is the premise of evidence-based nightmare recovery therapies.
  • Having comfort objects to engage with (a calming voice to listen to, a teddy bear to hug, or a soothing scent to smell) when you wake up from the nightmare can help people integrate emotions from disturbed dreams and establish a greater sense of emotional security and safety.

“Stay curious about your mind, with compassion for its attempts to support your survival,” advises Kuhn. “Remember that dreams are uniquely yours. They are not reality but instead are the art on your mind’s inborn canvas. Ultimately, it is the dreamer’s authority to decide what their dreams mean.”

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Kuhn, Olivia (Interview). How we carry our dreams with us into our waking lives., July 11, 2022.