Learning to Fight Chronic Nightmares

Is there a scientific difference between a bad dream and a nightmare?

ByABC News
May 29, 2008, 9:54 AM

May 29, 2008 — -- 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 "

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.