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19 Things You Probably Never Knew About Nightmares

Let's talk about what really happens when you wake up because it's the apocalypse and all your teeth fell out.

1. Nightmares are a mix of memories and other random information played out in a super disturbing way.

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Ever had a terrifying dream that you were kidnapped by random coworkers? Stuck on top of the Leaning Tower of Pisa? Not too weird actually. The images in nightmares are a mix of memories, recent information you were exposed to, and visual representations of your emotions, Michael Breus, Ph.D., clinical psychologist and fellow of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, tells BuzzFeed Life. And the plot is usually influenced by your fears and stressors, like being chased or tormented. Nightmares tend to be longer than dreams, with frighteningly realistic and memorable details.

2. They don't have to be “scary," they just have to make you scared.

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What might be a nightmare for you could be a normal dream for someone else. As long as it creates a strong negative emotional response (usually fear or panic), it's a nightmare, says Breus. For example, just dreaming about your horrible ex could be a nightmare for you if it stirs up sadness and anger — even if they're just sitting on your couch, harmless.

Likewise, dreaming about being chased or falling isn't necessarily a nightmare if it doesn't bother you, Dr. Barry Krakow, board-certified sleep specialist of Maimonides International Nightmare Treatment Center in Albuquerque, New Mexico, tells BuzzFeed Life. "You could dream of being chased by an attacker, but it can be fun or thrilling, like an action movie."

3. It's true that you can only dream about people you've met or seen before...kind of.

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When you sleep, your memories are being processed from the short term to long term, says Breus, and these make up most of the images in your nightmares. You can also dream of stuff you've seen in movies or books (like Chris Hemsworth but he's trying to kill you). There can technically be new "characters" in a nightmare, but they're really an amalgamation of faces you've already seen, says Breus.

4. The emotional response to nightmares can actually wake you up.

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You know when you wake up frantically at 4 a.m. suddenly realizing you're not in a zombie apocalypse? Here's why: Research has shown that a lot of dreaming occurs in the visual cortex, Breus says, which is linked to the amygdala, an emotional response center. During a nightmare, both these get fired up and trigger autonomic arousal of the body. "Your heart starts beating faster, breathing becomes labored, and you can start sweating profusely from a nightmare," he says. Cue waking up in a panic.

5. Most nightmares occur during REM sleep, when your brain is the most active.

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You can dream at any point during the night, but nightmares tend to happen during the second part of rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, Dr. Jim Pagel, associate clinical professor at University of Colorado, tells BuzzFeed Life. This stage of REM sleep is the closest to waking consciousness, which means neurons are firing and brainwaves are higher frequency so the mind is more active. This is why nightmares seem longer and much more vivid than dreams, says Pagel.

6. And nightmares tend to stick around in your head for a while once you're awake.

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This is because they happen right before you wake up, and the visuals that cause negative emotions are much more memorable than positive ones, says Breus. "People can remember the general plot of their worst nightmares for years, even decades," he says. And if you're still feeling disturbed the next day, it can mess with your sleep moving forward. "You want to get these disturbing details out of your head, but the more you think about not wanting to dream about them again, the more it will affect you," says Krakow.

7. Nightmares are a natural part of sleep and processing your emotions.

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Studies have shown that over 70% of adults experience nightmares at least once a month, says Pagel. "Part of the logic is that nightmares and dreams are a part of an emotional processing system of adverse life events," he says. The stuff that bothers you during the day tends to keep bothering you at night, and nightmares can sometimes help you work through it.

8. But being super stressed can make nightmares worse.

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Stress dreams, as Breus calls them, are a type of recurring nightmare which can cause panic, but lack disturbing images — like being late or forgetting everything. "I may be stressed that my brother is visiting, but in my nightmare I'm late for an exam," says Breus. These are usually caused by stressing over life changes: death, breakups, new jobs, moving, etc.

9. Even those nightmares that seem super meaningful can't predict the future.

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If you've ever had a super traumatic and realistic nightmare about a friend physically hurting you, a terrorist attack, or a partner cheating, it may feel like a premonition of the future. However, these are often driven by an extreme fear or a perceived threat of possible trauma, says Breus. Paranoia of being attacked or raped — either in real life or from a terrifying movie or book — can manifest as physical aggression in a nightmare.

"There is no evidence that a nightmare can warn you or predict a future event," Breus says. You don't have to have experienced trauma in the past to dream about it, either. In any case, traumatic nightmares that mess with your emotions are not the norm, so if you suffer from them regularly, it might be best to see a doctor or psychologist.

10. And nightmares can't actually kill you.

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"There's no evidence that a nightmare can physically harm or kill you," says Breus. However, there is data to show that in people with a weak heart or existing heart condition, increased heart rate during sleep could lead to angina (chest pain due to restricted blood flow to the heart) or possibly heart attacks. As we mentioned before, it's possible that nightmares could cause increased heart rate, but so could a lot of things, says Breus. So that wouldn't really be a nightmare doing harm so much as an underlying heart problem.

11. Sometimes, nightmares can be good.

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"Some patients I see would be upset if their nightmares stopped," Pagel says. If they don't cause significant distress, nightmares can be exciting, and even a major source of inspiration. "People who experience vivid and frequent nightmares tend to be more creative individuals with 'loose borders,' meaning they are more imaginative," Pagel says. In addition to helping process emotions, nightmares can also give pretty useful alternative perspectives on certain issues or people.

12. And some people even get inspired by these scary AF dreams.

Artists and writers have drawn influence from their nightmares basically forever. Author Stephen King is known for using his nightmares to create thrilling, complex plots for his novels. Likewise, renowned artist Salvador Dalí, who painted the above "Geopoliticus," was said to paint immediately after waking up so he could transfer the vivid details into a literal "nightmare on canvas." "The alternative perspectives of the world you get from nightmares can be very useful for a successful, creative career," says Pagel.

13. Some people are at a higher risk for nightmares than others.

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Depression, anxiety, and other psychiatric disorders are major risk factors for nightmares, says Breus. Sleep disorders such as insomnia or sleep apnea, are also associated with frequent nightmares. And since many sleep disorders are genetic, it's possible that chronic and severe nightmares could run in your family.

Gender may be a factor since young women report more nightmares than men. Children also report a higher frequency, but Pagel says that this is likely because they're more terrifying to children, and the emotional response decreases over time.

Medications can also cause or worsen nightmares, including antihistamines, melatonin, antipsychotics, antidepressants, beta-blockers, and smoking cessation drugs, says Pagel.

14. Nightmares are different from night terrors and PTSD-associated sleep disturbances.

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All three experts agree that it's important to distinguish the garden-variety nightmare with no specific cause from nightmare-like episodes. Night terrors are completely different because they occur during non-REM deep sleep, when the brain is less active, says Pagel. "After a night terror, people wake up screaming or crying, but they aren't fully conscious and go back to sleep with little to no memory of the incident," he says. Additionally, REM parasomnias, which can cause you to sleepwalk or even thrash and "act out" nightmares, are caused by a lack of the natural muscle paralysis during sleep.

PTSD-associated nightmares involve a more detailed reliving of trauma, similar to a flashback. "Almost all soldiers returning from war and many rape victims suffer from these nightmares," says Breus. These tend to be chronic, vivid, and have serious debilitating effects.

15. It's possible to be diagnosed with "nightmare disorder."

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It's classified in the DSM-5 under Sleep-Wake Disorders and includes repeatedly waking up to a fully alert state with detailed recall of extended and extremely frightening nightmares, and these disturbances cause clinically significant distress and impairment. The nightmares also aren't caused by a specific mental or medical disorder or substances.

"Many people don't know that nightmares can become abnormal to the point where it's a legitimate disorder with treatment options," says Krakow. The real question isn't how often you have nightmares, he says, but how much do they disturb you? If you have chronic and severe nightmares, Krakow suggests thinking about this and seeing a sleep specialist if they continue.

16. There are a few things you can do to try to avoid nightmares.

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Since nightmares are linked to poor sleep, it's important to get good quality rest each night. And keep in mind that your emotional and mental state while awake can affect your sleep state, so managing your stress, anxiety, or depression with a doctor or therapist might be a crucial step. Likewise, Breus suggests avoiding anything that could cause fearful emotions before sleep. Like your work email.

There are also many effective self-help books and online resources to help deal with nightmares. Jotting down your dreams and reactions in a journal is usually a good place to start. You can also try turning off Law & Order SVU and opting for these calming and happy activities before bed.

17. But if you have chronic, severe nightmares, you should see a sleep specialist about that.

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"One in 20 adults in the United States complain of disturbing dreams, and more than twice that many children and adolescents," says Krakow. "Yet few chronic nightmare sufferers imagine that it is a treatable problem, and even fewer seek treatment for it." That's a problem, says Krakow, because that might mean missing out on diagnosing a sleep disorder or other illness that may be causing them.

Not to mention that living with debilitating nightmares can lead to a fear of sleep, insomnia, and poor daytime performance, says Breus. "Many people ignore them until they get so terrible that the person depends on sleep aids, which don't really help the problem or worse — they use alcohol," says Breus. Booze has been a popular folk treatment because the brain-numbing effect does reduce nightmares, he says, but this isn't a real treatment and often leads to alcoholism or other health problems.

18. FYI: The leading nightmare treatment kind of involves lucid dreaming.

There are some medications that treat nightmares by reducing REM sleep, Breus says, but nothing has been as effective as Image Rehearsal Therapy (IRT), a non-pharmacological treatment developed by Krakow in the 1990s for sexual assault survivors. IRT requires the patient to write down their nightmares in excruciating detail, then change the storyline to include positive images and practice reading and rehearsing the new dream each day for several weeks. This way they have a cognitive-behavioral tool to deal with unpleasant images before they emerge in a nightmare. "It's not a cure-all, but 80 to 90% of patients report that IRT greatly reduced the intensity of nightmares and that it has a sustained effect," says Krakow.

Some variations of IRT even incorporate Lucid Dreaming Therapy to help the dreamer change a nightmare as it's happening. So basically Inception is real.

19. All that being said, there's SO much we still don't know about nightmares.

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All three experts agree that relative to the rest of medicine, nightmares are still a pretty mysterious topic with a lot more research needed. "The clinical study of nightmares began in the 1930s, then took a big turn in the 1970s with Freud's unconscious mind psychology" says Krakow. However, the use of IRT to treat nightmares has only been around since the late '90s, so it's relatively new.

Exactly why certain images become seared into our mind, and why different people often experience the same weird dream motifs isn't fully known. Until then, nightmares will keep scaring the shit out of people and influencing some scary AF books and movies.