In ancient times, nightmares were thought to be caused by evil spirits. The word, in fact, derives from a Scandinavian legend in which a ‘nacht-mara’—the ‘mara’ being a female demon—came and sat on the sleeper’s chest at night, leaving him with a heavy, suffocating sensation of being awake but paralyzed. Nightmares have been known to inspire great artists: John Henry Fuseli’s 1781 painting ‘The Nightmare’ caused a sensation with its depiction of an incubus crouching on the body of a sleeping woman. John Newton—a slave trader and the composer of the hymn ‘Amazing Grace’—became an abolitionist after a nightmare in which he saw ‘all of Europe consumed in a great raging fire’ whilst he was the captain of a slave ship. Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde was inspired, in part, by a nightmare. Elias Howe, who invented the sewing machine, came up with the breakthrough concept of a needle with a hole at the pointed end after he had a nightmare in which jungle warriors brandished spears that had holes in their blades.
As we have seen, both Freud and Jung had theories regarding nightmares: Freud tried to explain them as the expression of unfulfilled wishes, whilst Jung described them as part of humankind’s ‘collective unconscious’ and argued that the helplessness we feel in nightmares is a memory of the fears experienced by primitive peoples. Today, in medical textbooks, nightmares are most commonly defined as a disturbing dream that results in at least a partial awakening.
Nightmares, in common with most dreams, occur during REM stages of sleep and they generally cause the dreamer to wake up.
If you don’t wake up, the dream is not technically a nightmare and could be described as a bad dream. Nightmares are often characterized by the following symptoms: a sense of fear and dread that lingers for hours or days after the dream upon awakening; the ability to recall all or part of a dream scene; in most cases the dreamer is threatened or actually harmed in some way; a recognition of powerful images in the dream or the repetition of the dream itself for months or even years after; and a physical paralysis or lack of muscle tone called atonia which signifies REM sleep.
Drugs, alcohol, lack of sleep and spicy food can alter the quality and quantity of REM sleep and perhaps trigger nightmares but there is no hard evidence to support this. Whilst these things can increase the risk of nightmares, the mundane struggles in daily life are generally thought to be the cause of most nightmares. Sleep researchers have discovered that long-standing nightmare sufferers tend to be emotional, creative, sensitive but prone to depression.
Modern sleep researchers have identified the following causes for nightmares:
• Unconscious memory of intense emotions such as that of a child being abandoned by its mother. Many people have had the experience of feeling trapped in a difficult situation—a terrible marriage or another situation they want to get out of—and nightmares can hark back to that situation, mirroring the intense feelings of being trapped associated with it.
• Intense experiences produced by external situations, such as involvement in war or being a victim of assault. Trauma, surgery, a death in the family, crime and accidents can also cause them to proliferate.
• Many nightmares in adults arise from fears connected with repressed internal drives or from fears concerning the process of growth and change.
• Threats to self-esteem. People may be faced by or fear the loss of something important to them, such as the failure of a relationship or the loss of a child, being seen to fail at work or not being able to cope with life in other ways. Nightmares may arise out of feelings of inferiority or loss of self-confidence.
Some sleep researchers consider the occasional nightmare to be a natural response to stress; the dream is seen to be the body’s way of practicing its ‘fight or flee’ response, providing us with a way to work through aggressive feelings in a safe way, given that the body’s muscles are essentially paralyzed during REM sleep.... The Element Encyclopedia