I had my first nightmare when I was about four-five years old. The dream was so vivid that I still remember it today. I was in an empty movie theater, hiding from a man who chased me around with a kitchen knife. When the guy found me, he stabbed me in the chest — right in my heart. That’s when I woke up gasping, shaking, sweating. I’ve never had that dream — or anything alike — again.
This might sound controversial, but I’ve always paid attention to my dreams, even though I’m not a spiritual person. I believe that they are messages from the subconscious trying to tell me something important. Indirectly, but they point out a mental or emotional issue I struggle with in life. As a teenager, I used to read my mom’s dream book to decode the possible meanings.
But sometimes dreams are just dreams, rooted in our daily lives, without any meaningful message. Nightmares, though, are more obvious signs of daytime stress or trauma we experienced in our childhood. But what are they trying to tell us, and what causes them?
Professor Michael Shcredl, a sleep researcher in Germany, says: “Nightmares may be a sign that the social code that keeps us in line during the day is fundamental enough to who we are, and it operates even in our sleep.”
According to a 2017 study, about 5% of the population suffers from nightmares on a weekly basis. That is frequent enough to qualify as a diagnosable disorder.
Fortunately, I’m not in that five percent. But, when I do have the occasional nightmare, I tend to look for reasons. Often times, the cause of having a bad dream isn’t psychological at all. Eating a bucketload of ice cream, or a greasy extra-large pepperoni pizza not long before bedtime, would do the job just fine.
Other times, though, we better take a hard look at our daily lives and mental health to find the cause. Schredl claims that nightmares can be a result of all kinds of daily stress, which increase nightmare frequency. He adds that there is no need to have unrecognized problems in the subconscious to develop haunting dreams.
A few days ago, I had another nightmare. I was in a surreal reality surrounded by a bunch of faceless strangers. They didn’t talk. It was like an environment filled with emotional junkies — like an A.A. meeting for emotion addicts. They knew each other. When I spoke, I talked to the whole group and never to one person. They listened without interrupting me. Except this wasn’t just a meeting but the entire world.
In this dream, I had a girlfriend. We were walking down the street and, from out of nowhere, she told me that she’s breaking up with me. At that moment, I felt like years of memories, joy and pain, washed through my body. It was soul-shattering like a real breakup times ten — emotional overdose. All the faceless strangers were staring at us in silence. It was humiliating. Then I heard a beeping sound of an EKG monitor — my cue to wake up.
In reality, I have been going through a breakup in the last two months. I thought I’ve dealt with it already. I did what I usually do when this happens: I let myself wallow in heartbreak and sorrow. When I feel I had enough, I bury every emotion and thought into a mental grave. After that, I find distractions that make it easier to endure the repercussions.
This time, however, I’m not sure if it worked. I still battle with it every day, hoping it will become easier as time passes. So, I think the message from my nightmare is to confront my feelings instead of burying them. One part of it, at least. The other part might be a byproduct of the breakup — the fear of being rejected by someone I love.
According to a Hong-Kong based study,
“A larger share of the population — 30% to 55% — has an average of one nightmare a month.”
Professor Schredl says that there isn’t one single cause for these nightmares, but there are exceptions. He has found that people who are more sensitive and empathetic than the average have a higher tendency to develop distressing dreams.
Tore Nielsen, a psychologist of the University of Montreal, wrote:
“Firstborn children had frightening dreams more than twice as frequently as last-born children, regardless of potential confounders like age, sex, and the number of siblings.”
In early childhood, we go through a period called “infantile amnesia.” This lasts from birth to about age four. Infantile amnesia, also called childhood amnesia, is basically our inability to recall memories from before age four.
In this time window, if we experience severe trauma — such as sexual and physical abuse, witnessing brutal violence, or being placed in foster care — that can lead to Stress Acceleration Hypothesis (SAH), says Nielsen. The base of SAH is that early adversity could be responsible for our mental development of processing fear and crisis. This can help us survive and face trauma at a young age, but it comes at a long-term cost of causing nightmares later in life. The birth of a sibling in the “infantile amnesia” period could also be the root of bad dreams.
The other, more commonly known, exception of having frightening nightmares regularly is any type of PTSD issue. According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, people with post-traumatic stress disorder — such as war veterans, rape victims, or survivors of any kind of violent act — anywhere from 71% to 96% report frequent nightmares.
I’m still not certain what caused my first nightmare and why I remember it so sharply ever since. Although I’m a firstborn kid, my brother and I have a ten years age gap. Maybe it’s not that important now as I, luckily, don’t suffer from nightmares very often.
However, when I do, I know where I should look for possible reasons. Finding the cause of these bad dreams can help me better understand the ongoing problems in my life. They can point me in a direction where I should focus more to find a solution.
That is something that helps me maintain balanced mental health. Who wouldn’t want that in a time when anxiety, depression, and other mental issues strike us repeatedly every day?