Having bad dreams? What are they really trying to tell us?

Our nocturnal thoughts may hold the key to unlocking our subconscious mind, says AILIN QUINLAN
Having bad dreams? What are they really trying to tell us?

95% of dreams are forgotten by the time a person gets out of bed. Picture: Stock

I WOKE with a dry mouth and a thumping heart shortly after midnight. It hadn’t been as bad as the Brown Bread Leaving Certificate Exam dream, which recurred intermittently for more than a decade after I’d left school and which had involved my maths paper turning into a slice of brown bread as soon as I opened it.

In this one, I was sitting in a beautifully appointed room, which reminded me of one of my favourite rooms in the world, the library in Hayfield Manor, along with a friend whom I haven’t seen for a long time thanks to a rotten little virus called Covid.

My friend looked great but seemed to be in an extremely bad mood, muttering that she just wanted to watch TV. When we turned the set on, none of the programmes interested her. As we flicked through the channels, I tried to persuade her to watch something with me for a while but she became furious and snarled at me before getting up and leaving the room, which was most unlike her.

I embarked on a frantic search through a complex network of dim corridors and intersecting rooms before suddenly finding myself in the grounds outside. While I stood there, feeling bewildered and very rattled, my friend drove up in her car and glared at me before roaring off down the road. As her tail-lights disappeared into the distance, I put my hand in my pocket and realised to my horror that in my ramblings through the huge hotel I’d lost my car keys.

I woke up with a tight throat and a violent headache. God, I thought, as I stumbled downstairs and rummaged for some Panadol to knock back with a large glass of water, I’ve been having an awful lot of these lately.

The last time it happened, my husband had had to wake me. He said I’d been crying softly in my sleep.

My memory of the dream was that something horrific had happened which resulted in me being semi-paralysed and shrieking for help. Lurid stuff, but I couldn’t remember the details now.

So while waiting for the paracetamol to pound the headache, I did a bit of early-morning googling. Might as well; I was wide awake, now, anyway. According to research, the most common emotion experienced in dreams is anxiety. In fact, studies have revealed that negative emotions are far more common than positive ones in dreams, and although the experts say that while dreams are often heavily influenced by our personal experiences, certain themes have been found to be common across dreamers in different cultures – for example, being, chased, attacked, falling, arriving late, flying or appearing naked in public. Other common themes are being locked up, being tied up, restrained or unable to move, seeing yourself dead, being smothered or unable to breathe. Jeepers.

Nobody seems to dream much about happy strolls through sunlit wildflower meadows on summer afternoons. Everyone, according to the sleep science, is thought to dream between three and six times a night and it’s estimated that a dream can last anywhere from five to 20 minutes. Around 95% of dreams are forgotten by the time a person gets out of bed. No loss, I thought bitterly.

However, there was an extremely interesting sort of two-pronged fact about dreams which I unearthed in a medical journal. The first part is that scientists believe that what actually goes through our minds just before we fall asleep, can affect the content of our dreams. During exam time, for example, a student may dream about course content or people in a relationship may dream of their partner. Web developers may even see programming code.

But here’s the other thing. The journal also explained that our dreams can also be connected to issues we’re trying not to think about before we go to sleep. 

In fact, trying to avoid thinking about something just before we go to sleep can result in an increased occurrence of that suppressed thought in our dreams. In one study, a group of people who were described as good sleepers were asked to suppress an unwanted thought five minutes before sleep. The findings showed there was not only increased dreaming about the unwanted thought but a tendency by those sleepers to have more distressing dreams. Bingo!

Believe it or not, just before I had fallen asleep that night, I’d been trying not to think about a conversation I’d had a few days previously with one of those passive-aggressive types who see offence everywhere and always seem to be brooding over imagined slights; the kind of person who always has to be right and is always looking for an apology from somebody.

I’d tried to gently convince this person that they could feel happier if they tried thinking a bit more about others and a bit less about themselves and were less focused on feeling offended and being unpleasant. My lack of success left me feeling anxious, helpless and totally useless. The nightmare and the pounding headache a few days later was my thanks. You just can’t win, can you.

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