November 11, 2016
EVER SINCE THE “Creature Double Feature” brought late-night horror movies right into the living rooms of night-owl teens, responsible adults have issued warnings about watching scary stuff before bed: “You’ll have nightmares!”
But is it really true? Does hitting the sack right after watching a horror movie really cause bad dreams? What causes nightmares, anyway?
That well-intended warning about skipping the scary movies before going to bed is good advice for children.
Most children have nightmares at some point, and they tend to become more frequent between the ages of five and eight, when children this age are learning about the world around them and encountering some frightening things.
Nightmares in children can be caused by traumatic events — even if the events don’t seem scary to adults. For instance, a neighborhood dog barking loudly or a certain picture in a book can be scary enough to cause a nightmare.
Because children are more prone to being frightened by vivid dreams, laying off the scary stuff before bedtime is good common sense. Remember that fear is in the eye of the beholder, so tailor your pre-bedtime stories and television to your child’s needs. If your child loves clowns but is frightened by tall trees, honor that. Most children outgrow frequent nightmares when they reach double digits in age.
Though nightmares in adults are far less common than they are for children, you know how terrifying it can be when you have one. In adults, nightmares are more likely to be caused by real fears and unresolved tension about something in their lives — think of a bad dream as your brain trying to figure something out by making a movie about it. The more anxious you are, the more likely you are to have nightmares, and this is especially true for anyone suffering from a trauma and its after-effects.
In addition to anxiety, bad dreams are also caused by poor eating habits. Remember when Ebenezer Scrooge blamed those ghosts on indigestion? That’s not as far-fetched as you’d think. Snacks high in carbs, eaten before bedtime, can raise your metabolism and result in some outlandish or scary dreams. If you think this is happening to you, try keeping a food and dream journal to note any patterns, and then lay off the snacks that seem to be connected to nightmares.
For most people, nightmares tend to happen during the final third of the night, during the Rapid Eye Movement (REM) stage of sleep. This is when your brain is most active during sleep, and your body is most likely to be moved out of the semi-paralysis that occurs during deep sleep.
When your sleep cycle is interrupted by a nightmare, it may be hard to go back to sleep — especially if you’re only one or two hours away from the time you need to wake up. Losing out on the last segments of your slumber can leave you feeling groggy and disheveled the next day, but beware the urge to catch a nap to make up for it: A long nap within 10 hours of your bedtime can leave you wide awake at night and exacerbate your sleep cycle problems. For the occasional nightmare, it’s better to power through and stick to your regular schedule.
The bottom line? Scary movies can get your adrenaline pumping, but they’re more likely to cause nightmares in children than adults, who are probably more affected by the bowl of popcorn eaten during the flick.