Whether you get them once a year or multiple times a week, there’s no denying that a nightmare can be a source of anxiety for us all. But why exactly do we have nightmares in the first place, and do they have any benefits?

Well, according to Deirdre Barrett, a psychologist at Harvard University, nightmares must hold some benefit or purpose for our bodies, otherwise our bodies would have evolved away from them hundreds of years ago. Instead, it’s thought that nightmares are a warning sign from our brains that we need to focus attention on a certain aspect of our lives that may need improving. In other words, our nightmares are aimed at making us anxious about something.

Why do we have nightmaresIt’s thought that our bodies evolved to have nightmares in order to keep us scared or uneasy about certain dangers, therefore we would avoid them. This would make sense in ancient times, to avoid certain storms, dangerous animals that had hurt others and even the fear of invading countries. But when you think of modern nightmare subjects, such as a house fire, getting mugged or perhaps being attacked, these nightmare subjects are far less likely to happen to us personally. Even in the case of post-traumatic nightmares – perhaps after a car crash – the same events are highly unlikely to happen to the same person twice. So, why do we still have the nightmares, when they only traumatise us about events that cannot be helped?

Well, in many cases, dreams are far more symbolic than what they simply show. Take a car being stolen, on paper it looks like a fear of losing your car. However, on a more symbolic scale, it’s thought that a car being stolen might suggest we fear we are slipping into old bad habits or that we are lacking motivation in a certain aspect of our lives such as a job or relationship.

By approaching our nightmares from a more symbolic standpoint, it is actually possible to stop any recurring nightmares, as this way our brains know we’ve become aware of our problem so our brain doesn’t need to warn us about an impending danger.

It’s also possible, if you’re struggling to interpret the warning behind a dream, to put the end of a recurring nightmare by creating an alternative ending. So, before you go to bed, focus on the narrative of your nightmare and end it how you would like the nightmare to end – hopefully making the dream far less scary. For instance, if you are being attacked in your nightmare focus on fighting the attacker off, or perhaps have someone rescue you. It can be as realistic or as unrealistic as you like, the main focus is just to stop the nightmare.

Regardless of whether you can ‘solve’ your nightmares to stop them, you shouldn’t be too worried about the presence of them. True, they are a sign of being anxious or stressed about a certain aspect of our lives, but as most of us know what is causing us anxiety, we really don’t need our brains to give us metaphorical nightmares to warn us. Focusing on a nightmare will only stress us more. In reality, we just tend to remember nightmares more vividly as they disturb us, we could just as likely be having lots of nice dreams at the same time. Instead, try to relax before bed and get the best sleep you can. 

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at FreeDigitalPhotos.net