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Nightmares May Help Us Prepare for Real Anxiety-Provoking Situations

Nightmares are no fun, but an international study has found that nighttime fears may actually serve a greater purpose. Researchers from the United States and Switzerland have identified areas of the brain that are activated while participants experience fears in their dreams. After participants awoke, these same emotion-regulating areas responded to scary situations with much more efficiency and less anxiety than if they had not been activated at all.

From this outcome, researchers surmised that dreams could actually help our brains prepare to tackle real world stressful situations—opening the door for a multitude of new dream-based therapeutic methods for treating anxiety, said Lampros Perogamvros, of the University of Geneva, Switzerland, and University Hospitals of Geneva, Switzerland.  

If you’re looking for help with Anxiety  sometimes you may need to bounce ideas off of a professional counselor.

The Importance of Dream Research

Dreams have become a popular topic of research in neuroscience circles, more specifically dreams in areas of the brain that are engaged as we doze off. Certain areas are responsible for dreams, and when we sleep, different areas are stimulated, depending on the type of dream, said Lampros, who headed the study.

For the study, researchers gathered 18 participants for a sleep experiment. After being fitted with EEG electrodes, in order to measure brain activity, the participants were awakened from their slumber multiple times over the course of a night. Each time they were greeted by a series of questions like: “Did you dream? And, if so, did you feel scared?”

By analyzing brain activity based on participants’ responses, researchers identified two brain regions implicated in the induction of fear experienced during the dream: the insula and the cingulate cortex, Lampros said.

The insula is involved in emotion evaluation and regulation while we’re awake, and automatically activates whenever we start to feel afraid. The cingulate cortex, on the other hand, helps control reactions during threatening situations.

“For the first time, we identified the neural correlates of fear when we dream—observing that similar regions of the brain are activated when experiencing fear in both sleep and wakeful states,” said Lampros.

"Once a nightmare crosses the line into causing full blown terror, it loses most of its neurological benefits."

The Dream Connection: Night Versus Day

Next, the research team wanted to look into the possible relationship between fear felt while dreaming and emotions felt while awake. So, they handed out a dream diary to 89 participants to use for a full week. Participants were asked first thing in the morning all week to write down any dreams and emotions they felt while sleeping.

After seven days, each participant was placed in an MRI machine and shown a series of emotionally-negative images, such as assaults or distressful situations, as well as neutral images, to see which areas of the brain were more active for fear, and whether the activated area changed depending on the emotions experienced in the dreams over the previous week.

In this phase, researchers were especially interested in observing the behavior of the brain usually associated with emotion, such as the insula, amygdala, medial prefrontal cortex and cingulate cortex. They found that the longer a someone felt fear in their dreams, the less the insula, cingulate and amygdala were activated when the same person looked at the negative pictures.

“In addition, the activity in the medial prefrontal cortex, which is known to inhibit the amygdala in the event of fear, increased in proportion to the number of frightening dreams!” said Virginie Sterpenich, a researcher in the Department of Basic Neurosciences at the University of Geneva.

It’s worth noting, however, that once a nightmare crosses the line into causing full blown terror, it loses most of its neurological benefits due to the high likelihood of sleep disruption and stress upon waking. Researchers believed this is due to a certain threshold of fear being reached—one exceeded in a dream.

Perhaps this is the subject of another study. For now, it’s enough to know that dreams can have a function while awake. And, the more we experience fear in our dreams, the more we might be able to handle fear—and anxiety—in real life.

If you’re looking for help with Anxiety, sometimes you may need to bounce ideas off of a professional counselor.


Anderer, John. “Dream Study Reveals Nightmares Help Us Prepare for Real Anxiety-Provoking

Situations. (November 27, 2019). StudyFinds. Retrieved from https://www.studyfinds.org/dream-study-reveals-nightmares-help-us-prepare-for-real-anxiety-provoking-situations/


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