You respond to a benign radio call; as you pull your patrol car around the corner you hear shots being fired. You call for back-up. You see the bad guy running toward you, you try to find cover. The bad guy pulls down, you try to fire your revolver and the cylinder starts to rotate but then the system slowly grinds to a halt almost as if instant rust has seized up the gun. You try again; you are shaking, you pull the trigger, but your weapon still won't discharge. You pull out your backup gun, you aim and fire but the bullets fall to the ground. Your beat partner arrives code three; he fires at the bad guy six times and each round hits him, but he just won't die. Everything is in extreme slow motion. You think you may have been hit.
Nightmares are disturbing visual dreams that cause intense fear. These dreams are complex and often fairly long. During the dream, the sleeper believes that their life or safety has been threatened. As the dream progresses, the threat to the person usually increases, as does their sense of fear. Waking usually occurs just as the threat or danger reaches its climax. After a nightmare, the individual becomes fully awake and is aware of his or her surroundings, and can remember the nightmare with considerable detail.
A frightening dream that does not wake you up is not considered a nightmare; it is simply a bad dream. Individuals may have more than one nightmare in a night. During the course of a nightmare an individual may moan, talk, or move slightly.
There are five stages of sleep that make up one sleep cycle. Most people complete four to six sleep cycles per night (a complete cycle takes about ninety minutes). Nightmares most commonly occur during the fifth stage of a sleep cycle (REM sleep) during the second half of the night. REM sleep usually constitutes about 20-25% of your total sleep time. The REM stage gets longer during each sleep cycle, which means that during the last sleep cycle a person may spend up to an hour in a dream or nightmare.
An individual who experiences recurrent nightmares may be diagnosed with a nightmare disorder. This diagnosis is only given when there is no evidence of PTSD, other sleep disorder, other mental illness or as a result of substance abuse. These nightmares must cause the individual significant distress in important areas of life.
Nightmares are extremely common. Almost everyone has had them. Fifty to eighty five percent of adults report having a nightmare at least occasionally. Recurrent nightmares generally decrease and become less intense as individuals age, but for up to eight percent of the general adult population nightmares have been a chronic lifelong problem called a nightmare disorder. For those suffering from PTSD, the statistics are even more startling. One study demonstrated that 52% of combat Veterans with PTSD had nightmares fairly frequently.
The exact causes of nightmares are not known for certain. Approximately fifty percent of individuals who experience nightmares have an underlying psychological disorder, including PTSD or a nightmare disorder. The other most common cause of nightmares is attributed to life stressors and associated anxiety. Additionally, nightmares can be a side effect of certain medications (Prozac, Effexor, Levodopa); or amphetamine or stimulant drug abuse. Withdrawal from alcohol, barbiturates or benzodiazepines can also induce nightmares.
What Do Nightmares Mean?
Nightmares are typically classified into four categories or usual themes; being chased, attacked, falling or stuck. The dream content of a nightmare most often involves extreme danger. If you have experienced a traumatic event, you will likely have a nightmare about it. Experts contend that nightmares are caused by stress; unfinished business in the waking world. They also contend that the content of a nightmare is significant; your mind is telling you something. For example, if you dream you are trapped or stuck, you may feel trapped in real life.