If you've ever wondered why you a nightmare leaves you panting in fear—or wake up wishing you could go back to that 70-and-sunny-somewhere your alarm clock pulled you away from—you're not alone. Where our minds wander when we sleep is just as fascinating to researchers. There’s much to still be discovered about your brain and its labyrinth-like layout come nightfall. And what we do know varies greatly: Women and Republicans have more nightmares. Creative people are more likely to remember their dreams. And, yes, animals dream too.
But for psychologists like me, recurring nighttime visions are teeming with information. Issues you might sense subconsciously but are not ready to address—health, career, and love—can surface in scary dreams with twisted story lines. Researchers have found that most folks believe dreams can be predictive. But while a canine companion can smell out even the earliest stages of cancer, there is no research showing that dreams are prophetic of future health issues—mental or physical. The only studies of this sort have been done with children, showing that youngsters with nightmares more often have behavior problems as adults.
While your subconscious hunch that something may be wrong can seep into your dreams in the same way hormonal changes—like those of premenopause—can affect quality of sleep, dreams usually reflect what's already happened, not what could happen. A dream-filled night, for example, could indicate prior sleep deprivation—and that you finally just caught up. Without enough REM sleep, you can’t clear the junk in your brain’s trash folder, so when you finally log enough zzzs, you’ll have a lot of graphic footage to get through! [Tweet this fact!] Also, studies show that remembered events can influence dreams up to six to seven days later. So a freaky dream may mean your sticky brain simply paid more attention than you realized to that awful news story you half-heard. The news is more violent than ever, which feeds into dream violence.
A single nightmare may also be the result of late night fries, that one-more-for-the-road shot of tequila, or of a dose of an out-of-the ordinary medication. Environmental changes such as a smell can alter your dreams too, research suggests.
Figuring out daytime triggers can be a relief if dreams are bothersome. Look for patterns and try to connect the dots between your personal life and the types of dreams that pop up when you're stressed, angry, or happy. Even if the dreams themselves continue to be bizarre, that they appear every time you’re grappling with the same daytime issues makes them easier to deal with.