Up to 85% of the adult population has experienced nightmares. This means that the majority of people know what it's like for dreams to be haunted with the creepiest things the subconscious can muster up.
For instance, falling is a common theme in nightmares.
The interpretation of this one is fairly obvious, as it represents a sense of helplessness. It is believed that those who have this dream feel insecure or anxious.
Anxiety is believed to be the root cause of nightmares themselves, though specific fears can also play a role.
The average person's mind is riddled with things that cause them fear or give them a sense of worry. This could be influenced by the regular stress from jobs, relationships, and health.
Though the body is fast asleep at night, the brain is still hard at work. In fact, the level of neural activity during dreams might indicate that have bone-chilling nightmares really isn't as bad as we'd think.
Believe it or not, your brain uses the time you are asleep to help sort through emotions so you don't have to do it while you're awake. This means that while nightmares may be terrifying while they happen, you'll be more well-balanced in the light of day to deal with difficult topics.
But how does it work?
When your brain dreams about something unpleasant, it essentially puts together mental stimuli that takes an abstract concept and puts it into a story. The parts of your brain that rationalize logic have lower activity during dreams, which is why unrealistic situations are often found in dreams.
Rather than a looming fear that needs to be dealt with, the nightmare forms a memory in your brain, as if the sequence of events actually happened.
When the fear becomes a concrete memory, the brain is able to rationalize it much more effectively.
Because memories are of events that already happened, your brain begins to view it as an obstacle that has already been overcome.
If the brain has a "been there, done that" attitude toward a certain topic because it happened in a nightmare, there isn't as much of a need to stew on it during the day. This results in being less stressed and worried about those topics later, improving overall anxiety and mental health.
Without the time that nightmares give us to process emotions and essentially put them in the past, there's a better chance that these themes would creep up in the daytime, harming your mental health.
But is it really that easy?
Of course, having one nightmare doesn't mean that an individual will never worry about a certain topic again; it more or less just begins the desensitization process so it won't cause so much emotional turmoil.
Sadly, nightmares never seem that useful while you're having one.
Any bad feelings that nightmares bring can usually be shaken off within the first few minutes after waking up. Having an especially vivid nightmare, though, can leave a person with a nagging negative feeling that can last throughout the morning.
Luckily, there are some simple steps you can take to cheer yourself up and move on with the day. Adults can generally reason that what happened in a dream wasn't real, even if it really felt that way.
For some, however, nightmares aren't a simple annoyance, and they can actually pose serious health risks.
Those who endure frequent and incredibly terrifying nightmares, they might even try to avoid getting sleep at all.
Unfortunately, that's not a great game plan. Not getting enough sleep increases the risk of irritability, cardiovascular disease, mental fogginess, decreased memory, and depression, among others.
If frequent nightmares are influencing health by causing a lack of sleep, it is recommended to see a doctor.
There's still much more research that needs to be done about the science of dreams in general, and of nightmares in particular. Even so, it's nice to have no fear that the occasional nightmare can actually be beneficial.