Night terrors: what do anxiety dreams mean?
⚘The Gardian⚘(3-October-2018)
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Night terrors: what do anxiety dreams mean?


Wed 3 Oct 2018*

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Antonio Zadra, a psychologist, is sharing a memory of a horrific experience at sea. (...)

The first thing he did in the morning was hug his son.

Zadra says this is his worst*anxiety dream; one that still has the power to take his breath away. And, having read more than 10,000 dream reports for his work at the Center for Advanced Research in Sleep Medicine at the University of Montreal, he knows that his dream contains one of the most common motifs of anxiety dreams: that of our own imminent death (others include chase and pursuit, and loss of control). But this knowledge did nothing to ameliorate the shock and anguish of the moment.

Technically, the only thing that stops this dream from being classified as a nightmare is the fact that it didn’t
➡️wake him up.

(...)...? And do anxiety dreams – even the worst ones such as Zadra’s – bring any lasting benefit?

In fact, most dreams
contain elements of anxiety.*
About one-third of all dream reports in:

Calvin Hall and
⚘Robert Van de Castle’s⚘(rvdc)
seminal 1966 work,*The Content Analysis of Dreams,⬅️

contain “misfortunes” of some kind.

According to G William Domhoff, a sociologist and psychologist who worked with ⚘Hall, and who later*analysed the dream reports,
⚘80% of men’s dreams and
⚘77% of women’s dreams feature at least one of the “negative elements” of

confusion and

“On the other hand, only 53% of dreams for men and women have at least one of several positive elements, such as friendly interactions, good fortune, success and happiness,” he adds.

In other words, says Isabelle Arnulf,
a neuroscientist and president
of the French Society for
Sleep Research and Sleep Medicine,

“it is normal to have anxious dreams”.


lots of her patients talk about anxiety dreams,
worried that “they are abnormal”.
No wonder*the word
people most commonly use*
in their sleep is: ⚘“No!”⚘


But do anxiety dreams have a function?
Arnulf, who experiences them
before important meetings,
thinks that they do.

In 2014, she led a study of students taking the Sorbonne medicine exam. It is extremely competitive – fewer than 10% of those tested are admitted. She and her team asked examinees to complete a survey about how they slept the night before the exam. (...)

In this scenario, the repeated nightmare is almost a glitch in the dreamer’s system. Of course, it is not only traumatic dreams that are repeated. I often dream that I have just moved into a new home needing a lot of refurbishment only to find a hidden extra room and then lose it, spending the rest of my dream trying to find it again. But what might this mean, I wonder? Bell can’t say because he doesn’t know me, but, as a starting point, he suggests that this kind of dream makes him ask: “Does the person feel that they have done some damage somewhere and they need to repair it – the total refurbishment?” (I have always assumed the dream literally expressed the fact that I would like a room of my own, along Virginia Woolf’s lines.) In other words, dreams communicate our unconscious preoccupation. (...)

Then again, ... (...)

He also believes that “sleep is very important to consolidating memories and even learning new skills”, whether emotional, cognitive or even physical.*A study of German athletes, for instance, found that nearly

10% of them felt that they could use their lucid dreams

(when the dreamer is aware that they are dreaming)

to practise aspects of their performance.


and because the prevalence of metaphor in dreams
– people falling down holes or
endlessly running, or
in the case of another friend,
caring for an ever-diminishing baby –
spurs a search for meaning.

At the*Swansea sleep lab, Blagrove and his students recently asked participants in their research to keep a diary and evaluate the emotional intensity of their experiences. They then woke them up in the sleep lab and asked them to describe their dreams. The researchers printed the dreams on one side of A3, the dreamer’s diary on the other and studied the way that waking-life events were incorporated into dreams. They found that “the more intense the emotion, the more likely it was to appear in a dream”, Blagrove says. He recently dreamed that he was tweeting in upper case, even though he knows this is considered discourteous. He was able to map his dream to a family trip to the theatre when he became stressed about returning late from the interval.