College College Mind, Brain, and Behavior TSS

Why Nightmares Actually Benefit Your Mental Health

The unconscious mind communicates to our conscious self in forms of nightmares to remind us about our abstract fears and obstacles.

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After a tiring day, you get ready for bed; you brush your teeth, change into sleep clothes, and lie down to sleep. Soon, you find yourself in a faint world- a world that feels so realistic. However, you are accompanied by dog-sized spiders ruling the world. You try to run away, but one of them lunges at you! And as it slowly creeps its mouth toward your head, you wake up in fear. You’re breathing heavily, perhaps even sweating and clenching your fists. You start to calm down, but you can’t go back to sleep.

You just had a nightmare.

Many people believe nightmares are occasional terrifying dreams that just naturally occur. However, dream psychologists and neurologists have theorized that certain nightmares, garden-variety nightmares, are actually beneficial to our mental health.

The other type of nightmare is known as a post-traumatic nightmare. Unlike the fantastic narrative that the garden-variety nightmare creates, post-traumatic nightmares are results of a real-life traumatic experience that recurred in one’s dreams. These nightmares are also very dangerous as they freshly re-traumatize the victim, coercing them to think the experience has just happened again (1).

Garden-variety nightmares are theorized to be some sort of communication between the unconscious mind and the conscious self (2). When we process information in the real world, we do so both consciously and unconsciously. Typically, in nightmares, the information we gathered unconsciously are abstract fears, conflicts, or issues that make us feel guilty or anxious (3). During a time when we ignore these emotions, the nervous system in our brains create stories in forms of nightmares to remind us about these issues. The nightmares largely act as symbols that can help us solve these problems in our lives (4).

Each and every vivid detail is important for us to analyze our nightmares (1). They are also not to be analyzed literally. For instance, if you woke up from being convicted of murder during your nightmare, you do not have some “psychological hunger” of desiring death on someone. It is actually a calming mechanism for you to tackle on whatever issue your conscious self may be facing at the time that will eventually benefit your mental health altogether.

Dr. Gordon explained what you should do to analyze your nightmares. You should always have a pen and paper next to your bed. If you happen to have a nightmare one day, write down every single detail you can possibly remember onto the piece of paper – all before you even get out of bed. Interpret your nightmares by determining the main elements, considering how you feel about these dreams, and put these associations together into one meaningful analysis (1). Other people’s analyses of your nightmares may be different from yours, but strangely, all of them eventually link up to one common meaning. In other words, all different analyses present some form of method that will help you clear the obstacle your unconscious mind wants you to be aware of (2).

“Kenny, on some days, I don’t remember my dreams at all.”

That’s okay. Your unconscious mind probably isn’t alerting you on some very important issue. For reassurance, everyone is capable of remembering their nightmares in vivid detail since they only occur during the REM sleep stage, which is also when the brain is most active during sleep.

Note that sleep is still a developing field for research, so all of this unconscious connection with the conscious self is still a theory (particularly, a psychoanalytic one). And that only garden-variety nightmares are beneficial; post-traumatic ones require “imagery rehearsal therapy” immediately (1).

So remember, keep a pen and paper next to your bed and record all your nightmares. Think of nightmares as the character Boo in To Kill a Mockingbird, or the hidden heroes to our mental health. You being convicted of murder or failing to save your friend from falling off a building should not be a literal consideration. Rather, you should consider them as symbols of feelings that unconsciously may block your mental stability. This way, we keep our unconscious self’s messages in check so that we can live a healthier mental lifestyle. 



2). Dr. Gordon. Personal Interview. 5 July 2018.



Kenny Jung is a first year at UC Merced where he majors in computer science and engineering. He has many recognitions such as QuestBridge College Prep Scholar 2017 and National College Match Finalist 2017, SCS Noonan Scholar, Fiat Lux Scholar, APIASF Scholar, and Caruso Scholar. In addition to writing for The Student Scientist, he takes part in a non-profit organization called Project Magnify which he helped become established in 2017.

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