The Occurrence of Nightmares

Essay #3: Research Paper – ENC1102

The essay will require the use of at least 3 unique secondary sources. These sources must be from highly reputable websites only and must be primarily scholarly. Include an MLA-style Works Cited page and in-text citations. This paper should be roughly 3 high quality pages (800 word minimum). The essay may not exceed 20% direct quotation.

The topic: Nightmares can also be a very interesting issue to discuss in research papers on dreams. Psychologists relate nightmares to the field of “unconscious”. Very often, people forget about the stressful situations they once had. However, those situations are reflected in their minds and they can appear in dreams. You may also find other points of view on nightmares and discuss them in your research paper on dreams.


The Occurrence of Nightmares

Nightmares are vivid, realistic, and disturbing dreams that may be upsetting, threatening, and bothersome, sometimes causing people distress and affecting their well-being. Dreams are the brain’s way of processing experiences and emotions. They are part of the mind’s default network that stays active during quiet periods, especially REM sleep. When someone is stressed, anxious, or depressed over a particular issue, the brain may process these feelings and emotions during REM sleep, when nightmares tend to happen. Therefore, an individual’s feeling, emotions, and experiences impact their dreams. Nightmares can reveal relatively difficult periods and encounters. Different environmental stressors coupled with inherent individual vulnerability alter brain functioning, triggering nightmares.

Causes of Nightmares

Nightmares are often associated with negative feelings, including fear, stress, and anxiety. They are particularly prevalent in children, given that they are vulnerable to more threats than adults. As such, nightmares may reflect this vulnerability (Edwards). They are a revelation of emotional and mental problems associated with stress, depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder. They can happen for various reasons ranging from scary encounters, psychiatric disorders, medication side effects, past individual experiences, irregular sleep, post-traumatic stress disorder, and unmet psychological needs.

The most studied cause of nightmares is post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). According to Akkaoui et al., chronic nightmares are common in patients with psychiatric disorders. Although the relationship between nightmares and distinct psychiatric disorders is not well established, the connection with post-traumatic stress disorder is well established (Akkaoui et al.). Individuals with PTSD are likelier than individuals without PTSD to have exact replays of the traumatic events affecting them. In such cases, the brain region involved in identifying potential threats, including the amygdala, may be overly sensitive or overactive.

Altered Brain Effect

Rapid Eye Movement and the Cortisol Hormone

Distinct areas of the brain are associated with Rapid Eye Movement (REM) and non-REM sleep. During REM sleep, when people experience bizarre dreams and nightmares, the brain wave activity operates at a level similar to wakefulness. Here, the thalamus sends sounds, images, and other sensations. The cortisol hormone is also high late at night. The hormone affects the interaction between the neocortex and the hippocampus, an interaction that impacts memory consolidation. Therefore, the cortisol hormone’s preferential consolidation of salient memories can influence the content of dreams and nightmares. This interaction also implies that nightmares are not random but reflect thoughts, emotions, and experiences.

The Amygdala

The brain regions associated with fear behaviors, such as the amygdala, also play a role in stress- and trauma-related nightmares. The amygdala, which identifies potential threats, can become overly sensitive and overactive after recent exposure to trauma. According to Scarpelli et al., the amygdala is intensively active during REM sleep, and plays a pivotal role in regulating emotions such as fear and anxiety. In individuals experiencing great exposure to trauma or facing distinct emotional issues, REM sleep may amplify the amygdala’s altered function, resulting in more dysphoric dreams. Therefore, dysfunction or altered function of this part of the brain explains nightmares in people with mental and emotional problems. In children, the dysfunction of the hippocampal-amygdala-prefrontal circuit, which controls memory formation and fears, also causes nightmares.

Neuro-cognitive Model and Frontal Regulatory Deficits

According to Carr et al., nightmares are thought to result from executive function deficits, especially in arousal regulation. People who experience frequent nightmares show these impaired executive functions. A study conducted in 2017 on the neurocognitive model found that specific frontal regulatory deficits correlate with nightmares (Carr and Nielsen). A separate study supporting and complementing this argument found that people who experience frequent nightmares show decreased frontal activity (Marquis et al. ). This indicates a possible overlap in brain functions, hormones, and mechanisms associated with distress when awake and nightmare dysphoria at night.

Essentially, the psychological and neuro-cognitive model of nightmares aligns with the diathesis-stress model, which posits that psychological disorders result from inherent interaction between environmental stressors and individual vulnerability (Carr et al.). The alignment is in the sense that individuals facing great distress are more vulnerable to developing frequent nightmares. Distress from adverse personal experiences and trauma has similar effects to distinct personality traits, including neuroticism and hyperarousal. The cognitive model of recurrent dreams further posits that when the brain replays patterns of stressful events, including those that have faded from waking consciousness, it creates loops, causing recurrent nightmares.


In conclusion, psychologists relate nightmares to unconsciousness. The human brain often tends to suppress stressful and traumatic events and situations, making these memories inaccessible in a state of consciousness. The brain essentially blocks the memory to protect the individual from trauma, shock, and stress. This functioning of the brain partly explains nightmares following traumatic events. Distinct factors, including past individual experiences, psychiatric disorders, medication side effects, and irregular sleep, alter the function of certain parts of the brain and trigger nightmares.

Works Cited

Akkaoui, Marine Ambar, et al. “Nightmares in Patients with Major Depressive Disorder, Bipolar Disorder, and Psychotic Disorders: A Systematic Review.” Journal of Clinical Medicine 9.12 (2020): 1-23.

Carr, Michelle and Tore Nielsen. “A novel differential susceptibility framework for the study of nightmares: Evidence for trait sensory processing sensitivity.” Clinical Psychology Review (2017): 86-96.

Carr, Michelle, et al. “Frontal Brain Activity and Subjective Arousal During Emotional Picture Viewing in Nightmare Sufferers.” Frontiers in Neuroscience 14 (2020): 1-7. <>.

Edwards, Scott. “Nightmares and the Brain.” 2015. Harvard Medical School. 8 December 2022. <>.

Marquis, Louis-Philippe, et al. “Nightmare severity is inversely related to frontal brain activity during waking state picture viewing15, 253–264. doi: 10.5664/jcsm.7.” Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine 15 (2019): 253-264.

Scarpelli, Serena, et al. “The Functional Role of Dreaming in Emotional Processes.” Frontiers in Psychology 10.459 (2019): 1-16. <>.

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