It might surprise you to learn that nightmares and bad dreams aren’t actually synonymous with one another. Both refer to negative, often bizarre experiences that occur within the mind during sleep, but degrees of intensity ultimately prohibit the two from being employed interchangeably.
During a bad dream, only moderate levels of fear are triggered in the insula and cingulate cortex. This distinction posed particular relevance for the researchers behind a new study published in the Human Brain Mapping Journal. After their analysis, it was determined that bad dreams (not nightmares) proffered real-world, psychological benefits for the experiencer.
Evidence for day/night affective homeostasis
Thanks to a combination of self-reporting and MRI scans the authors of the new report were able to gauge fear levels associated with bad dreams and again in relation to disturbing images presented to the participants when they were awake.
“We found that the longer someone had felt fear in their dreams, the less the insula, cingulate, and amygdala were activated when the same person looked at the negative pictures,” explained Virginie Sterpenich, a researcher in UNIGE’s Department of Basic Neurosciences.” In addition, the activity in the medial prefrontal cortex, which is known to inhibit the amygdala in the event of fear, increased in proportion to the number of frightening dreams!”
Dreams, whatever the incarnation, have been widely acknowledged to provide preparatory reprieve for mammals. A recent study published by the Department of Psychology at the University of Zurich disclosed dreaming to be a contributory element of processing and integrating distressing memories, making them especially useful to victims of traumatic experiences.
Outside of the context of sleep, the two regions of the brain monitored in the new report that induct fear when we dream also possess important regulatory functions when we are awake, namely evaluating emotions and conditioning motor functions in response to potential threats. Again, this perceived threat doesn’t have to be a real one to activate the aforementioned neuro correlates.
To animate this supposition, the researchers supplied their recruited pool with dream journals with which they were tasked with documenting the emotions they recalled feeling during bad dreams.
“We showed each participant emotionally-negative images, such as assaults or distressful situations, as well as neutral images, to see which areas of the brain were more active for fear and whether the activated area changed depending on the emotions experienced in the dreams over the previous week,” Sterpenich reported. “These findings support that emotions in dreams and wakefulness engage similar neural substrates, and substantiate a link between emotional processes occurring during sleep and emotional brain functions during wakefulness.”
This exercise proved that dreams do in fact work like training sessions against the terrors that tax us in the real world, even if there was dually observed to be a threshold that judges the moment the benefit ceases to exist. The degree of fear engendered by a nightmare forfeits its role as an emotional regulator because it both disrupts sleep and produces adverse effects in the experiencer even after they’re awake.
Surprisingly, there are little things we can do to curb the likelihood of intense nightmares. Limiting foods like cheese that contain tryptamine and tyramine, for instance, decreases our nightmare risk, by fortifying a balanced chemical system before we enter REM. A similar rubric extends to more obvious dietary don’ts like excessive caffeine before bed, or consuming processed sugar or drinking alcohol.
Managing the content of the dreams is a little more tricky. Nightmares, more so than bad dreams, are fueled by underlying conditions like depression, or recent disagreeable life changes. In either scenario, the root needs to be addressed to sufficiently attenuate the pernicious weeds that follow thereafter.
“If your nightmares are related to anxiety, depression or PTSD, certain forms of therapy or medications might help to alleviate these conditions and lessen nightmares. In particular, a drug known as Prazosin is often prescribed to help patients with PTSD, anxiety and panic disorders, and can alleviate nightmares. It is important that you speak to your doctor to figure out a treatment option that is best for you,” explained Laura Barns of the Sleep Matters Club.