I have a place I go to in my dreams when I’ve had a particularly stressful day. It’s been like that since I landed my first job as a waitress. No wonder, because as it turns out dreaming and other sleep phenomena are directly related to our waking life.
My waitress dream always starts in the same place, a dimly lit restaurant where I’m also the bartender. I’m alone, and the place is empty at first. Then a couple walks in and orders drinks. It’s even darker now; so dark that I can’t tell the difference between bourbon and vodka as I’m trying to fill their order.
Still, I’m diligently preparing the cocktails as the restaurant fills with customers.
It’s Just a Dream
First, a party of four. Next a six top. Then suddenly, the place is packed. Finally, I look for the original couple because I managed to make their drinks.
They’re gone; I panic.
My blood pressure starts to skyrocket as all of the customers become increasingly impatient. Now it’s too much, and I decide that the stress of being a server isn’t worth it, so I head to the door to leave.
At this point, I either wake up or realize that it’s a dream. If I wake, my heart is pounding, and I lie quietly recalling the events, feeling grateful that I gave that career up long ago. If I stay in the dream and make it out the front door, that’s when the fun begins.
Why We Dream
Psychologists Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung both developed theories on dreaming. Of course, Freud (1) thought everything had a secret sexual innuendo attached.
By the way, Jung and Freud were friends; however, Jung had his own ideas about dreaming.
Unlike Freud, Jung didn’t believe that dreams were simply a way for us to express our private kinks. Instead, he developed a theory that dreams are there to help make us whole through a process he termed individuation (2). This mechanism uses personal imagery and archetypes that are universal, calling to some ancient need that seeks reckoning.
In short, as far as Jung was concerned, dreams are evolutionary both individually and for humanity.
Later, behavioral scientist Calvin Hall elaborated on Jung’s ideas and developed the Cognitive Dream Theory, in which he analyzed the meaning of the images in an individual’s dreams.
Hall’s theory was that dreams are a result of the things we have on our mind. In my experience, this idea makes sense. Though my waitress nightmares pop up now and then since I left restaurant work, I usually resolve the dream conflict these days.
What’s more, that dream always happens when I’m stressed. In reality, waitressing kept me on edge for my entire shift because I worked the busy rushes both in the morning and at happy hour as a bartender. So my mind knows the feeling and relates it to those things.
Also, when I was working as a server, I never got past the front door of the establishment in my dream. Essentially I was locked in; that’s interesting when you think about the personal symbolism. On some level, I knew I needed a different path.
Nightmares have a purpose
Hall believed dreams were a roadmap, and it appears he was correct.
The point is that maybe our nightmares are trying to tell us something. Perhaps if we look deeper into the psychology of what our subconscious mind is saying, we may uncover some truth about our life.
Additionally, nightmares are there to grab our attention, so we know we need to address these problems. Perhaps I would still be a server if my subconscious hadn’t alerted me to the fact that the lifestyle in the hospitality business wasn’t good for me.
Nightmares are fairly common, especially in children.
In fact, studies show that up to 39 percent of children between the ages of five and twelve have nightmares (3). That makes sense when you think about how little control children have over their lives.
Even more interesting:
Nightmares are more frequent in adults who are creative or in those that don’t have many boundaries. Finally, frequent nightmares in adults may be a sign of underlying psychological issues.
PTSD and dreaming
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is one example of the type of psychological challenge that causes frequent nightmares. Up to 68 percent of war veterans and 28 percent of others who have experienced trauma have nightmares in which they relive the events.
When a person has PTSD, their fight or flight response is on overdrive (4). The trauma they experienced sticks with them during the day and slips into their subconscious at night, causing frequent and terrible nightmares.
Most of these dream phenomena occur during rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, and as with all dreams feel completely real and logical until one wakes, or otherwise realizes they’re dreaming.
If you have frequent nightmares, it’s a good idea to talk to your doctor to find out if any other things are going on that you need to address.
Here’s the good news:
Dreaming Is like Playtime for the Brain
We often think that it’s only our conscious mind and body that require play or downtime (5). But when we sleep, our brain gets to choose how it uses our imagination. Consequently, most of the dreams we experience are entertaining.
Today, scientists believe that all mammals dream. So when your dog is asleep, and their eyes are fluttering around, they're likely dreaming too. I’m pretty sure my chihuahua dreams she’s kicking some big dog’s butt!
Many psychologists now approach dreaming as an asset in which they help trauma victims recover by using their dreams to determine what lies at the base of their condition. Psychologists may even give them techniques to use their dreams as a method for recovery.
If we think of dreaming as playtime for the brain, our dreams may help us become more creative and expand our boundaries and awareness in our waking lives.
However, until we have control over what happens in our sleep, there are still bound to be surprises.
That Feeling of Falling
Have you ever been close to going to sleep when you suddenly jump or feel as if you’re falling? You may be surprised to find out that 70 percent of people have experienced this when they’re drifting off to sleep.
So, what is a hypnic jerk?
No, a hypnic jerk is not the guy that won’t leave you alone on Tinder (6).
It‘s a sleep phenomenon that happens when your brain shuts down for the night, but your body has a hard time following suit. To understand the way it works, visualize a light switch: you flip the switch on, you have light; off, there’s no more light.
Your brain is confused
Our brain works in much the same way as the light switch.
To put it simply, the chemical reactions in our brain (neurotransmitters) are such that, when we fall asleep, they cause our muscles to disconnect from the mind, so we don’t react physically to what’s happening in our dreams.
So, a hypnic jerk is similar to hiccups in that it’s an involuntary muscle contraction which happens because there’s a glitch in the switch.
It’s okay; this is a common occurrence and there are ways to counteract what’s happening.
Get more rest
In general, these unwanted muscle contractions go by unnoticed. But if you find that a hypnic jerk is happening frequently and they wake you up, you probably need more rest. Unfortunately, that may be easier said than done.
Nevertheless, there are some things you can do to help yourself get better rest.
Along the same lines of the hypnic jerk is another manifestation of a confused brain - and it’s a little scarier.
Have you ever awakened from a dream only to find you’re unable to move? If so, you’re one of up to 30 percent of people who’ve had this experience. Where a hypnic jerk is the result of our muscles lagging behind the mind when the brain’s switch shuts off, sleep paralysis is the mind waking mid-dream before the muscles can move.
When this happens, it triggers the amygdala. The amygdala is the area in our brain that looks for danger and sets off the fight or flight response, resulting in intense fear. When you try to move and realize you can’t, your anxiety increases.
As if that’s not enough:
The demon on your chest
Another symptom of sleep paralysis is hallucinations, which causes some people to believe there’s an evil presence hovering over them or sitting on their chest, holding them down.
But wait there’s more:
Throughout history, there have been tales stemming from this sleep phenomenon; novels like Herman Melville's “Moby Dick” and artwork such as “The Nightmare” by Henri Fuseli depict sleep paralysis.
Don’t worry; science knows better
These days we know that the miscommunication between our neurotransmitters, brain, and muscles causes sleep paralysis. However, that doesn't make it any less terrifying. Much like the hypnic jerk, sleep paralysis usually happens when you’re drifting off to sleep or when you’re waking up.
The whole episode only lasts up to a few minutes as your mind and body sync-up.
Though we’re not 100 percent certain why this happens, there are some potential causes:
Unfortunately, there’s no one way to treat sleep paralysis. However, if it becomes a problem, you should see a doctor. Otherwise, try the same things you would if you were having issues with a hypnic jerk. Most of all, focus on easing your stress and get some rest.
Our mind has all kinds of ways to play tricks on us when we’re too tired and stressed out. And as you know by now, a lot of our anxiety shows up in our dreams.
Floating Down a Warm River
But have you ever thought you were awake and maybe heading to the bathroom, only to find that you’re not actually sitting on the toilet? Then, it’s too late, and the unthinkable has happened - you’ve wet the bed. There are lots of things that cause bed-wetting; however, not all of them are related to the false awakenings of sleep (8).
No, you’re not really awake
False awakenings are like a dream within a dream. You believe that you’re awake until the event happens that catapults you into reality (9). Sometimes it’s a relief, and others, such as the bed-wetting incident, not so much.
Most likely another neurotransmitter malfunction, these false awakenings can happen several times in a row. The reason is that your brain becomes aware of the physical world before you’re completely conscious.
False-awakenings are associated with hyper-vigilance, so try to find a way to relax before hitting the hay.
You can do a few things to cut down on the likelihood of experiencing a false awakening. For example, don’t drink alcohol before bedtime. If you want to party all night, you might have to pay for that decision later in your dreams. Alternatively, eat some carbohydrates or have a cup of warm milk before you go to bed.
One more thing:
If you suspect you’re having a false awakening, try to open your eyes. Keep trying and eventually your eyes will open and you'll wake up.
On the other hand...
You can find ways to determine if you’re dreaming while you’re asleep. First off, if you’re not sure if you’re dreaming you probably are in a dream. So if you’re asking yourself that question, remember, the answer is yes.
Second, while we’re in REM sleep, we don’t have long term memory. So you can check if you’re dreaming by trying to remember your phone number or address. If you can’t figure that out, the likelihood is that you’re dreaming.
Wait, I’m dreaming?
Lucid dreaming is when you’re aware that you’re dreaming. This is when things get fun because then you’re only limited by your imagination. For example, once I became aware that my waitress nightmare was a dream, I gained so much power. When I open that door to leave the restaurant, I can fly. There’s nothing so free as a lucid dream.
Adding intentional wakefulness
You can reach this awake dream state intentionally with some practice. First, you need to get good at reality checks. Also, set your intentions while you’re awake; that way when you’re sleeping your brain remembers that you want to wake up in your dreams.
Additionally, some people use the technique in which they wake up on purpose four to six hours after they’ve fallen asleep, during the longest REM cycle. Then they tell themselves they want to wake up in their dreams before returning to bed. Theoretically, this method sparks a lucid dream.
Journaling your dreams
The best way I’ve found to remember my dreams as well as examining the symbolism is to write them down. You can keep a dream journal next to your bed and when you wake from a dream, immediately record everything you remember. Not only does this help you remember your dreams, it lets your brain know that you want to remember your dreams.
Night, Night, Sleep Tight
All in all, it seems our minds may be as active at night as they are in the daytime. So it stands to reason that we can learn a lot about ourselves from our dreams. The good news is that no matter what you're experiencing when you fall asleep, there are others who’ve gone through the same thing.
Have you dealt with any of these dreaming episodes and other sleep phenomena we’ve discussed here? Or, do you have something new to add? We’d love to hear your thoughts and stories. Please leave us a comment or get in touch via our contact form.