Are Nightmares Helpful?

By Desmond Yeoh SC

woman sleeping

During sleep we go through three stages; dream or REM[1] state, light sleep and deep sleep. During deep sleep, consciousness disappears and we are not aware of anything at all. During deep sleep, the ‘Self’ disappears. This is why Paramhansa Yogananda said that Man is God when he is asleep. Getting sufficient deep sleep is important for us to feel refreshed and rested.

We subconsciously process our emotions during the dream stage. People who suffered stress and anxiety during the day are likely to have frightening dreams or nightmares as the emotional burdens dealt with are heavier.

Tessa Love wrote[2], “A recent two-part study found that bad dreams could actually help reduce anxiety around real-life situations by acting as emotional dress rehearsals. In the first part of the study, researchers from the University of Geneva, University of Wisconsin, and University Hospitals of Geneva analyzed the brains of 18 people while they slept and found that two brain regions — the insula and the cingulate cortex — were activated when fear was experienced in their dreams. In the second part of the study, 89 people recorded their dreams and associated emotions each morning for a week, after which researchers scanned their brains while showing them “emotionally negative images.” The researchers found that the more someone experienced fear in their dreams, the less those brain regions lit up when they were shown the negative images. Activity in the area of the brain that inhibits fear also increased in proportion to the number of frightening dreams. This could mean that experiencing fear in dreams can help modulate fear in waking life — and even act as an emotional release”.

We should remind ourselves that these nightmares are not “me” or “mine”. They are impermanent; they arise and then fade away. Instead of being afraid or averse to them, these nightmares can be used as objects of study or contemplation to better understand ourselves. I sometimes get nightmares of being unprepared for an examination when I am faced with a challenging assignment at work. The nightmare is therefore merely a reminder for me to do more research and preparation for the assignment. When I suppress my anger instead of watching them and then letting them go; the anger sometimes appears in my dreams as me throwing a temper tantrum. So, by understanding our nightmares, we understand the weaknesses which we may need to work on.

Our nightmares may also reflect some issue or problem we are trying to suppress. The issue then appears in our dreams in the form of vivid experiences so that we can address them like playing a virtual reality game of sorts. So the nightmares are helping us do address issues which perhaps we are not yet ready to manage in our waking state.

If we know what the issues are, we can bring them up during meditation when we are in a calm state of mind. If they are some past negative experiences, we should see that we are only making ourselves suffer by holding on to them. When we touch something hot, we will immediately withdraw our hand from the object. Why not do the same with the hot mental object? If the issue is due to our worry of a future event, it is even more ridiculous to suffer from fictional scenarios which we create in our mind. Just let them go.

[1] REM stands for Rapid Eye Movements because our eyes moves rapidly from side to side in this stage. Most dreaming happens during this stage.

[2]Nightmares Are Good for You, According to Scientists” by Tessa Love

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