The word nightmare comes from the Old English “mare,” and refers to a female evil spirit that sits on people’s chests and suffocates them during sleep. That sounds very similar to sleep paralysis, doesn’t it? Both are parasomnias, sleep disorders that cause unpleasant physical experiences during sleep.
Nightmares tend to happen during rapid eye movement or REM periods of sleep when your brain is more active. They make you experience deep fear, distress, and anxiety that wakes you wake up. You might think they’re harmless, but people have died during nightmares, so, you’d better keep watching.
How many people suffer from nightmares?
What can you do to cure them while you’re still awake? And how can you use a smartwatch to fight them?
Step 1: Wrap up
About 2 to 8% of adults experience frequent nightmares. When they’re combined with other sleep disorders, it could be fatal. Comedian Mike Birbiglia had a nightmare, and he also suffers from sleepwalking disorder. One night, he was sleeping in a hotel room, and he dreamed that a missile was heading straight for his bed. He was still asleep when he hopped out of bed and jumped out of the window. He arrived at the hospital with broken glass all over his legs.
One piece of glass almost cut his femoral artery, which could have made him bleed to death. Fortunately, he survived. Now he sleeps in a sleeping bag to avoid jumping out of windows. So that’s something you could try.
Step 2: Don’t be afraid of sleeping
Frequent nightmares are one cause of insomnia. Neurologist Dr. Heidi Moawad has found that patients with recurring nightmares avoid sleeping as they fear the unpleasant and intense emotions they experience in nightmares. And not sleeping can certainly kill you. About 16% of fatal car crashes involve drowsy drivers.
So, don’t be afraid of sleeping. About 4% of adults in the U.S. suffer from nightmare disorder. The good news is, there are behavioral therapies and medicines that help.
Step 3: Wear a smartwatch
According to the U.S. Veterans Administration, studies have found that up to 96% of war veterans experience frequent nightmares. For Patrick Skluzacek, that had become, well, a nightmare. When the American veteran returned from Iraq in 2006, he started experiencing PTSD.
The worst part was he couldn’t sleep at all due to his horrible nightmares. His son Tyler designed an app that tracks these dreams using the heartbeat monitor and movement sensors in a smartwatch. When the app detects a nightmare, the watch vibrates hard enough to stop the dream but it doesn’t wake up the dreamer. So, wear a smartwatch and start counting sheep.
Step 4: Make peace with your local demon
During the 1970s and 80s, mysterious deaths occurred among Laotian refugees in the U.S., and 116 healthy young men died in their sleep after moaning and screaming. The Hmong community was sure it was the tsog tsuam, a spirit that comes in the night to take those who lose their traditions. This real story inspired a classic horror film, “”A Nightmare on Elm Street.””
Scientists didn’t find a clear explanation for the deaths and called it Sudden Unexpected Nocturnal Death Syndrome. SUNDS is reported worldwide, but it’s considered endemic in Southeast Asia. Years later, Dr. Shelley Adler thinks it’s a genetic disease in which the body just doesn’t tell the heart to beat. There isn’t a treatment for it, and it’s almost impossible to detect. So, you’d better make peace with your local sleep demon.
Step 5: Be creative
Imagery Rehearsal Therapy, or IRT, has helped reduce chronic nightmares and other PTSD symptoms and improve sleep quality. Basically, IRT helps you to rescript your nightmares while you’re awake. A therapist provides you with techniques that let you recall your most common nightmares with less fear. So, as we said earlier, maybe your legs are paralyzed in the nightmare, but you can escape by air. It’s a dream, my friend. So you can do whatever you want.
- “The son of an Iraq War veteran designed an app to stop his dad’s PTSD nightmares”. Alaa Elassar, CNN. 2021. CNN.
- “An Apple Watch app claims to stop nightmares, and sleep scientists think it could provide temporary relieff”. Andrea, Michelson. 2021. Insider.
- “Imagery Rehearsal for Nightmares Related to PTSD”. Matthew, Tull. 2021. Verywell Mind.
- “Can You Really Die In Your Nightmares?“. Stuart, Fox. 2021. livescience.com.
- “The Dark Side Of The Placebo Effect: When Intense Belief Kills”. Madrigal, Alexis. 2011. The Atlantic.
- “When Nightmares Literally Kill You”. 2021. vice.com.