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Nightmares are the sleeping mind’s expression of feelings of vulnerability. More disturbing or frequent nightmares may indicate a more serious problem caused by emotional trauma.



Although nightmares were studied long before the era of modern sleep research, much has been learned about them since the discovery of the rapid eye movement (REM) cycle—the state of sleep during which the most vivid dreams occur. In the REM cycle, the dreamer is unable to move because all motor control is shut off. Subsequently, the mind may create a horrifying nightmare about the dreamer’s being paralyzed and unable to escape.

Researchers disagree about the age at which a child begins to experience nightmares. Some say that children aren’t affected by them until about the age of five, while others contend that one-year-olds can have them. Perhaps nightmares begin as soon as a child begins to experience fear and anxiety (e.g., seeing and hearing the child’s parents fighting or being injured in some manner). Children have more trouble with their nightmares than adults, largely because they are limited in their ability to articulate what has horrified them, so they never get to know that the monsters and goblins that chased and almost ate them were not real. Researchers suggest that when children approach the age of six or seven, their ability to communicate and the comfort they receive enable them to accept nightmares as “just a bad dream.”

Each and every moment, every experience of a small child’s development is internalized. Their feelings of anxiety as they gaze at the faces of unfamiliar people, the threatening images of animals they encounter, as well as the shapes and sounds of their daily exploration of the world often embellish themselves as nightmares during the night.

Adult nightmares are similar to children’s in that they engender a sense of vulnerability. The types and sources of anxieties may change, but feelings of helplessness and insecurity affect people of all ages. Psychiatrist John E. Mack explains the difference in the nature of children’s and adults’ nightmares this way:

Nightmares occur in response to the characteristic danger situations that human beings confront in the fear of strangers and the dread of abandonment in infancy and the fear of bodily injury in early childhood, and ending with the fears of failure, death and loss of function in adulthood and old age…. Nightmares may become the prototypic expression of the activities that characterize each stage of development. (p. 331—see Sources)

People who suffer from chronic nightmares tend to be extremely sensitive and impressionable individuals.

References in classic literature ?
Kurtz--it was ordered I should never betray him--it was written I should be loyal to the nightmare of my choice.
I had the misfortune to scream in my sleep, owing to a frightful nightmare.
Raoul, you have seen death's heads, when they have been dried and withered by the centuries, and, perhaps, if you were not the victim of a nightmare, you saw HIS death's head at Perros.
Wild horses would not drag from me the name of a certain river in the north whose narrow estuary is inhospitable and dangerous, and whose docks are like a nightmare of dreariness and misery.
But beyond this bodily recognition, March could make neither head nor tail of their presence or demeanor, which seemed to give a final touch of nonsense to the whole nightmare.
He discovered that the three pages he had read had made no impression on him at all; and he went back and started from the beginning: he found himself reading one sentence over and over again; and now it weaved itself in with his thoughts, horribly, like some formula in a nightmare.
Half fainting from pain and exhaustion, D'Arnot watched from beneath half-closed lids what seemed but the vagary of delirium, or some horrid nightmare from which he must soon awake.
Among all the incidents of the day, one recurred to his mind to the exclusion of the rest; although now that his self-control was regained, and he was no longer under the influence of a nightmare, he was able to think of it calmly.
When he ran his mind over the whole of this strange Russian campaign in which not one battle had been won, and in which not a flag, or cannon, or army corps had been captured in two months, when he looked at the concealed depression on the faces around him and heard reports of the Russians still holding their ground- a terrible feeling like a nightmare took possession of him, and all the unlucky accidents that might destroy him occurred to his mind.
All existence seemed to beat with a lower pulse than her own, and her religious faith was a solitary cry, the struggle out of a nightmare in which every object was withering and shrinking away from her.
The days and nights of torture that the young woman suffered were so merged into one long, unbroken nightmare of hideousness that she soon lost all track of time.
She told me of Kho's desire for her, since all his females had been stolen and of how her life had been a constant nightmare of terror as she sought by night and by day to elude the great brute.