Sinlung /
23 March 2010

Revealed: The Secrets Behind The Nightmares That Leave Us in a Sweat

By Fiona Macrae

Young woman falling through the air

Wake with a jump: Falling is a common theme in dreams

Losing a loved one, being chased by a monster or running hopelessly late for a vital appointment - it's all the stuff of nightmares.

And for some of us, it's a show of horrors that unfolds most times we go to sleep.

Others claim never to be troubled by dreams of any sort.

Scientists are trying to unravel the meaning behind the disturbing dreams that leave us waking in a panic.

They believe that while the nightmare may not directly correspond to waking life, it can reflect the sleeper's emotions or concerns.

The five most common themes are falling, being chased, feeling paralysed, being late and the death of a loved one.

Hair or tooth loss and sitting exams are also common themes, even among those too young to go bald and too old to sit exams.

But there were clear differences in the topics that haunted the sleep of the sexes in the study conducted in Germany.

Men are more likely to have nightmares about violence or being sacked while bereavement and sexual harassment crop up more in women's nightmares, says a report in the European Archives of Psychiatry and Clinical Neuroscience journal.

In one of the largest studies of its kind, researchers asked more than 2,000 men and women about their bad dreams.

A calm and collected 48 per cent said they never had nightmares. 

But one in 10 said they had frightening dreams several times a year and almost one in 20 were bothered by them at least once a fortnight.

Those who owned up to having a lot of nightmares were also asked to describe their contents.

'Topics like falling, being chased or paralysed do not have direct correspondences to waking-life experiences,' said researcher Dr Michael Schredl from the International Association for the Study of Dreams.

'A monster chasing you in a dream might reflect a daytime fear of a particular task lying ahead that one wishes to avoid.'

What does your dream mean graphic

Dreams about hair and tooth loss are more common in women - perhaps signifying anxieties about losing their looks.

The findings came from a study in which researchers asked 2,000 men and women about their dreams.

A calm and collected 48 per cent claimed they never had nightmares. One in ten said they had frightening dreams several times a year and almost one in 20 woke up in terror at least once a fortnight.

Davina Mackail, a Daily Mail columnist and dream expert, said: 'Nightmares are a response to something unresolved. They can be exacerbated by stress.

'If you deal with what is showing up, they will go away.

'You can lie to yourself when you are awake but not in your dreams.'

She said women tended to have more nightmares because of their hormones.

'Often they can dream about violence just before their period is due.'

Dreaming is part of the normal sleep pattern and happens every night, even for those who insist they don't dream.

Sleepers are most likely to remember nightmares and bad dreams if they wake up during them.


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