I am no stranger to nightmares. When I was a child, they generally took the shape of large animals, falling from great heights, or G’mork, that creepy wolf-thing from The Neverending Story (a recurring favorite). Now that I am older, my nightmares are more likely to take the form of fingernails falling off, animated homicidal dolls, or giving birth to aliens. Oddly, once I got pregnant (I’m now five months) things really took off, and suddenly I found myself waking in the night gasping or even screaming, something I’d never done before.
Obviously I enjoy none of this, so out of curiosity I looked up what recent science was saying about bad dreams and how, if at all, people who suffer them can try to mitigate the issue. I found a surprising new trend: nightmares (which researchers estimate comprise nearly three quarters of all bad dreams) are no longer relegated to the realm of pointlessness like they once were. Antti Revonsuo of the Centre for Cognitive Neuroscience at the University of Turku in Finland contends they are instead an evolutionarily based staging process for threat avoidance. In other words, the mental preparation for an endlessly revolving series of terrible scenarios would be highly adaptive in a dangerous prehistoric world.
But again, as I was lamenting in Things That Go Brush In The Night, this leaves humanity at the mercy of an antiquated biological system that now conveys far more unpleasantness than benefit. Luckily several new approaches have found effective footholds in the last decade, as John Cloud explains in “Nightmare Scenario,” a new article for TIME. One is the drug prazosin, effective for reducing multiple symptoms of PTSD, including trouble sleeping. Another is imagery rehearsal therapy, in which the patient consciously invents a dream he or she might like to have, writes it down, then spends time focusing on that dream daily.
Other sleep studies, like the ones piloted by Dr. Barry Krakow of the Maimonides International Nightmare Treatment Center in Albuquerque, N.M., show a remarkable correlation between breathing trouble (such as that caused by sleep apnea) and interrupted sleep. The theory he’s developed is that a wide range of sleep disorders, including ordinary insomnia, are the brain’s way of waking the body so that it can remedy the lack of airflow.
For me, this is where things clicked. I often find when I wake from scary dreams that I am lying on my back, a position that especially in pregnancy is known to limit breathing ability. Since both apnea and asthma run in my family, then, is it possible that my nightmares all these years have been nothing more than a bodily mechanism for waking me up? Or are they, perhaps, an elaborate training system for a mobile, hunter-gatherer life I no longer need to live? Or – most depressing – simply inexplicable?
Whatever the case, I hope science holds the answer. I am not looking forward to my next meeting with G’mork.