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Why do we have nightmares?

Why do we have nightmares?

Many theories exist as to the nature of nightmares. Freud understood the nightmare as a representation of deeper anxieties that manifest the emotional trauma in the dream as something concrete and, although terrifying, nonetheless something which ‘disappears’ upon awakening, and therefore seemingly solves the presenting emotional issues of trauma.

Recurring nightmares in this way are dealing with a recurring trauma being disguised and represented repeatedly, perhaps as the same thing every dream or something different each time. Thus, somewhat counter-intuitively, the ‘wish’ behind nightmares lies in concealing a deeper issue that doesn’t actually go away (at least unconsciously) in waking life by making it something that does go away as mere fantasy upon awakening.

Nightmares in this sense can be understood as compensational psychological devices. One often finds in psychoanalytic therapy that after a patient has dealt with emotional trauma sufficiently most if not all of their nightmares dissipate, showing some degree of truth in Freud’s theory.

While psychoanalysis offers a ‘why’ behind nightmares, further psychological studies have tried to understand more so the ‘how’ of nightmares. They seem to be associated with anxiety and daily trauma, or at least brought on by these things. They are very common in people with post-traumatic stress disorders. They can also be triggered by medication and drug use.

Both ideas for the origin of nightmares are not mutually exclusive. It may be that past traumatic experiences are ‘repressed’ for most of our life to a degree sufficient for us to go on and get by, but that pain or trauma or intense fluctuations in neurochemistry throughout the day may weaken this repression.

The mind then has to find a way to deal with the presenting emotional energy that would otherwise re-traumatize us should it resurface, and thus the ‘how’ of modern psychology explains the occurrence to the ‘why’ of Freud.

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