Learning to Fight Chronic Nightmares

Everyone has nightmares -- everyone, that is, except Ross Levin.

"I actually have very few nightmares," he said.

Maybe that's because Levin is a psychologist who spends most of his time studying terrifying dreams. He says he's figured out what seems to be a shockingly simple method for fighting chronic nightmares, the kind that haunt Rachel Smalls.

"A typical nightmare for me probably goes through a number of different themes," said the college student who lives in Boston. "There's the natural disasters, tornadoes, there's the apocalyptic dreams."

Smalls kept a journal of her nightmares and wrote about one set in a hotel lobby.

"I walk towards the hotel desk. I see my parents at the elevator very worried. I say I forget the room number and my mom is worried and she can't remember it either, but doesn't say so. She says, yeah, there's no one at the desk, but I knew that meant something terribly evil was going on."

"Then one face of the hotel crumbles away and there is a terrible series of demonic noises like a construction site and synthesizers and sound, kind of like a dragon. I can see a huge demon, very typical, the kind you would see in a movie or comic book -- muscular torso, red skin, rising from flames. And at the end of the hotel is Satan himself. He is a normal man, I don't know, who has this awful goat mask on. It has really, really long horns like an antelope …"

Bad Dreams vs. Nightmares

It turns out there's a scientific difference between a bad dream and a nightmare.

"Bad dreams would be bad dreams we remember in the morning and say, I had a bad dream last night," said Levin. "Nightmares are dreams that jackknife you up in the middle of the night in a sweat."

Bad dreams -- as opposed to nightmares -- are how our brains teach us to deal with stress and fear.

"We think that dreams are emotion regulators; they're emotion thermostats," said Levin. "When stress gets too high, we begin to have bad dreams and nightmares. And so in that sense they serve as a signal to say whoa, stress is at a dangerously high level. And so that feeds back to the brain to try to reduce the stress, or if we pay attention to it during waking, we would be well-off to spend the tension to try to regulate our stress during waking."

Levin says bad dreams can serve a beneficial purpose, but nightmares like those Smalls suffers are a sign of an overload of stress.

"Her dreams are filled with images of gore and violence and threat and fragmentation and body parts and people hanging and things of that nature," Levin explained. "A lot of running away. A lot of panicking. And one of the things we found with Rachel that I think is the most striking is, we had her keep track of her daily mood and her daily stress and her daily coping with stress for about two weeks. And a pattern clearly emerged in her paperwork. Her negative emotions way outweighed her positive emotions each day."

Levin said those negative emotions "reached crescendos" the nights she had nightmares, particularly emotions related to "a lot of interpersonal difficulties. A lot of troubles with loved ones which are particularly salient triggers for nightmares."

Rewriting Your Nightmares

According to Levin, many patients he treats for nightmares also suffer from other psychological or psychiatric issues.

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