Science

Why do we have nightmares?


This article is taken from issue 203 of Science and the Future “The essentials”, dated October / December 2020.

To utter a cry, to wake up in a sweat, with a pounding heart, seized with anguish… The nightmare is the frightening face of the dream. If each of us lives, a few times a year, this unpleasant experience, “epidemiological studies have shown that 5% of the population is subject to nightmares once a week or more. It is a clinical threshold that justifies treatment, emphasizes Antonio Zadra, director of the dream research laboratory at the University of Montreal, Canada. We can also intervene when nightmares are less frequent, but traumatic, with an anxiety that lasts after waking up “.

Nightmare is 1.5 to 2 times more common in women “

Whether repeated or not, sometimes linked to lived events, the nightmare has multiple causes.

It may be one of the symptoms of neurological dysfunction in people with violent restlessness at night. (read the interview p. 40). Another well-identified cause: post-traumatic stress, the consequence of an accident, a war experience, physical or sexual assault in particular. As yet unknown genetic factors also seem to come into play.

Studies of identical twins have indeed shown that, if one of them suffers from nightmares, the other is also much more likely to have them, which is not the case for fraternal twins. “Nightmare is 1.5 to 2 times more common in women. It is indeed often linked to depression, which affects them more “, adds Antonio Zadra.

Purely cognitive methods

n ° 203 of Science and the Future “The essentials”, dated October / December 2020.

To utter a cry, to wake up in a sweat, with a pounding heart, seized with anguish… The nightmare is the frightening face of the dream. If each of us lives, a few times a year, this unpleasant experience, “epidemiological studies have shown that 5% of the population is subject to nightmares once a week or more. It is a clinical threshold that justifies treatment, emphasizes Antonio Zadra, director of the dream research laboratory at the University of Montreal, Canada. We can also intervene when nightmares are less frequent, but traumatic, with an anxiety that lasts after waking up “.

Nightmare is 1.5 to 2 times more common in women “

Whether repeated or not, sometimes linked to lived events, the nightmare has multiple causes.

It may be one of the symptoms of neurological dysfunction in people with violent restlessness at night. (read the interview p. 40). Another well-identified cause: post-traumatic stress, the consequence of an accident, a war experience, physical or sexual assault in particular. As yet unknown genetic factors also seem to come into play.

Studies of identical twins have indeed shown that, if one of them suffers from nightmares, the other is also much more likely to have them, which is not the case for fraternal twins. “Nightmare is 1.5 to 2 times more common in women. It is indeed often linked to depression, which affects them more “, adds Antonio Zadra.

Purely cognitive methods

The impact on daily life is far from negligible among victims of chronic nightmares. “Some people fear falling asleep and postpone bedtime, others avoid going back to sleep after a nightmare, for fear of reliving it. All of this leads to a sleep deficit. It’s a vicious circle”, emphasizes the psychologist. Certain molecules, such as prazosin, have been shown to be effective in the management of post-traumatic stress, reducing the occurrence of associated nightmares.

But there are also purely cognitive methods. In particular, Mental Imagery Review and Review Therapy (RRIM) developed by Barry Krakow, a medical researcher at the University of New Mexico, USA, in the late 1980s, and adapted in clinical practice by Antonio Zadra. Its principle is very simple: after a nightmare, patients are invited to modify the scenario in order to make its outcome more positive. “They are left free. Some imagine that a friend comes to the rescue, others that they are able to steal to avoid a disaster … In general, we see that the patients, through this change, seek to control their life in the dream , when they came to the clinic feeling very helpless in the face of their nightmares. ” Therapy generally consists of five to six consultation sessions, then it is continued at home.

The patients practice each day to visualize the new scenario. Result: several studies on large samples of patients indicate, in 80% of cases, a decrease in the frequency and intensity of nightmares, which sometimes disappear completely. The method is applicable to children: they are then asked to draw their scenario. Widespread in North America, RRIM has been spreading in Europe for several years.

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