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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.