By Sean Zucker –
While you probably shutter a bit at the memory of his bloody red striped sweater, creepy burnt skin and surprisingly mediocre body count, Freddy Krueger actually may have just been trying to help. Yeah, it’s a scary thought. But the truth remains that despite feeling unpleasant in the moment, science suggest that nightmares can be quite beneficial.
New York Magazine explains that nightmares develop when your unconscious brain takes abstract fears and turns them into stories while you sleep. They are often so vivid and terrifying that upon initially waking up you’ll feel as though the nightmare really happened, even if it was totally unrealistic. In short, nightmares take your fear and turn it into memories. However, there’s a good reason the body has developed this ability. Memories tend to be easier for the human mind to deal with than ambiguous doubts and worries.
The magazine notes that while memories can be horrible or even gruesome, they are in the past. Therefore, the mind sees them as an obstacle that was overcome. So, after waking up and reclaiming consciousness, whatever was scaring someone in their dream now registers in the mind as an obstacle overcome. Essentially, scary dreams force people to confront lingering anxieties in a way that allows them to separate from them, ironically releasing people from their fears.
Spookier still, recent research indicates that fear and anxiety aren’t the only reasons we shiver and shake at night. Nightmares also can help with a vast slate of emotional confrontations. According to a 2014 study out of the University of Montreal, confusion, guilt, disgust and sadness are all common causes of nightmares and bad dreams. The data, which analyzed nearly 10,000 dreams featuring 253 categorized nightmares and 431 bad dreams, saw physical aggression as the most frequently reported theme in nightmares. While noting fear’s absence in nearly a third of the nightmares and bad dreams recorded, the university concluded a large potion were often due to repressed interpersonal conflicts, with health concerns also playing a large role.
Harvard psychologist and author of Trauma and Dreams, Deirdre Barrett, Ph.D., recently spoke with Inverse on nightmare’s potential as a mental health wellness tool helping to relieve stress and provoke suppressed emotions. “Interpreting our dreams (and nightmares) often makes us understand something about what we’re thinking or feeling that we haven’t been conscious of,” Barrett explained. “So, if you just have garden variety nightmares occasionally, that’s a really good opportunity to understand a little bit more about unconscious fears and anxieties that may be cropping up.”
But dreams, and by extension nightmares, are a deeply personal experience. What may be petrifying and unbearable to one person may seem awfully mundane to another. “Some nightmare content is not about stuff that would seem that scary to anyone else. Some nightmares have this just horrible, sense of impending doom. While the actual content looks kind of boring to the average eye, it’s absolutely terrifying to that individual,” she said. This reflects their singular ability to attack our unique issues.
It is then unsurprising that nightmares are often utilized by the human body as a low stake means of revisiting traumatic experiences. According to CNN, nightmares can act as a check engine light, indicating there is past trauma that needs to be dealt with. And frequent similar nightmares may signify you need help confronting it from a mental health professional. Additionally, when ignored, this trauma and its related dreams will only continue, possibly leading to bigger problems such as depression or anxiety.
Beyond addressing past trauma, BBC stakes their claim that nightmares can also help you prepare for real life threats. The British news outlet looked at multiple studies out of Switzerland and the United States that suggested being scared while you sleep helps you control fear during the waking hours. The gist being that going through frightening situations while asleep acts as rehearsal, potentially preparing individuals to face life’s real-world dangers and threats.
Turns out every mind has an Elm Street and maybe Freddy tickling our nighttime fears is merely his way of helping us confront and overcome them.