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That vivid dream at 3 am

“A soldier, wielding a sword, would chase me on his horseback in an ancient city. I would run for my life. As he inched closer, I would stumble and fall. I would try screaming, but would be unable to. I would try to get off the ground, but my legs wouldn’t move. Then, I would feel the cold pierce of his sword through my abdomen and the hot blood gush out of me. I would wake up panting, soaked in sweat, making the night colder,” recollects Sayambrita Mukherjee, an art teacher based in Hong Kong.

She is not alone in having such a vivid memory of the nightmare that had haunted her as a child. A lot many people easily recall recurring nightmares of the class bully who pushed them off the towering cliff or the predatory animal that tried to eat them. It is probably because they wake up soon after they experience horror. Explains psychologist and hypnotherapist Tishya Mahindru Shahani, “A nightmare usually occurs during Rapid Eye Movement (REM) phase of sleep. So, after a nightmare, orientation is fast. It leaves a detailed memory, often evoking anxiety, terror or fear.”

What are these wretched dreams that elicit such horror though? According to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, nightmares are vivid, realistic and disturbing dreams, which involve threats to survival, security or self-esteem.

Why do people experience nightmares? Are there any underlying reasons behind them? Modern psychology has managed to give us some insight into the subject of nightmares, but much remains unexplained.

Nightmares commonly affect about 90 percent of the population, at least once in their lifetime. It is predominant in children between the ages of 6 and 12 and tends to stop between ages 9 and 11. Studies suggest that as we grow older, the frequency of nightmares tends to decrease. Says Shahani, “Sometimes, nightmares may continue beyond childhood and well into adulthood, and may not be due to stress or trauma. These are known as idiopathic nightmares, and their cause is unknown.”

If nightmares become an everyday affair, then they are sure to have a negative impact on a person’s mental wellbeing. It can even leave the individual physically exhausted. If nightmares plague a person’s life, it is prudent to seek therapy. Shahani observes, “Monitoring, relaxation therapy, and exposure exercises help decrease the frequency of nightmares and the fear they induce. In fact, therapists use a technique called cognitive restructuring, which can help the person alter the storyline of their nightmare.”

But why do people experience nightmares? Are there any underlying reasons behind them? Modern psychology has managed to give us some insight into the subject of nightmares, but much remains unexplained. Often, experts are unable to detect the cause of nightmares, let alone explain what they mean. The topic continues to intrigue scientists and psychologists alike.

However, there seems to be a strong correlation between nightmares and stress, anxiety or fatigue. Recent studies reveal people who hit the sack late are highly likely to experience nightmares. Recurring nightmares in adults may also stem from periods of mental and physical illnesses. Medicines and drugs can set them off too, studies reveal. What has intrigued scientists is the fact that body clock and cycle could be related to nightmares. But it raises more questions than it answers.

The cause of nightmares that leave a deep imprint on our minds may as yet be unknown. But to those who experience nightmares, they are as true as the sun and stars. John Lennon put it best: “I believe in everything until it’s disproved. So I believe in fairies, the myths, dragons. It all exists, even if it’s in your mind. Who’s to say that dreams and nightmares aren’t as real as the here and now?”


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