Wisdom, Chapter 18, Verse 17-18
Scientists have put forward physical and psychological reasons for why we experience nightmares. Nightmares tend to occur during rapid eye movement (REM) sleep episodes. These REM episodes become more frequent as the night progresses, so nightmares often occur in the latter portions of our sleep, during the early morning for most people. Nightmares frequently concern being unable to escape danger, falling, or reliving a traumatic experience. Unlike night terrors, which occur soon after going to bed and are not experienced as dreams, we do remember our nightmares. Sometimes nightmares can have physical triggers, such as eating just before sleep, or taking drugs such as antidepressants or antihypertensives, or conversely, trying to stop drinking alcohol or sleeping pills. Paradoxically, sleep deprivation can also increase the likelihood of nightmares, as can sleep apnea (where breathing is impeded during sleep, causing episodes of waking while gasping for breath). Finally, nightmare disorder (often hereditary) can cause nightmares. Nightmares may have serious physical consequences, such as an increased risk for obesity and heart disease, while those suffering from depression are more likely to consider suicide. Psychological explanations for nightmares have also been offered. About 100 years ago, Sigmund Freud taught that dreams were a way to access our subconscious, and interpreting these was a key element of psychoanalysis. Nightmares would reveal thoughts and desires that we were not aware of in our daily life, but which manifested in such things as a slip of the tongue (where we might says a word that seems totally out of place, which revealed what was secretly on our mind) or a persistent thought (which could be a song or poem that included a key word or concept). Today, many psychiatrists believe that dreams serve the purpose of allowing us to work out emotional or problem-solving issues. Nightmares may thus convey an ongoing, unresolved spiritual conflict. I have argued previously that nightmares enable us to cultivate compassion for the other we do not understand. For example, I believe that nightmares are gifts from God enabling us to access a painful situation without really having to experience the pain of the experience. This helps us to cultivate empathy if we choose to consider our self-improvement after our bad dreams. In fact, Rabbi Zeira taught, “if a man goes seven days without a dream, he is called evil,” and Rabbi Huna taught that “a good man is not shown a good dream, and a bad man is not shown a bad dream” (Berachot 55b). Perhaps this comes to teach us that, on some level, we need the human vulnerability of bad dreams to remain humble, sensitive, and empathetic. We must actively choose to use our dreams as a vehicle for deepening our spiritual and ethical sensitivities. Abraham was the first to have a nightmare in the Torah. “And it happened, as the sun was about to set, a deep sleep fell upon Abraham; and behold—a dread! Great darkness fell upon him” (Genesis 15:12). Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, the great 18th-century German scholar, interpreted Abraham’s experience in a unique way. The answer had to experience figuratively the endless night and dread and the exulting awakening therefrom so that it could be grasped more surely and more deeply and be handed down with all the certainty of something that had already been lived through. This opens up a new way to understand nightmares from a theological perspective. Perhaps G-d provides us with experiences outside of reality in order to prepare us to handle real situations within our reality. We are more prepared for a negative life experience in our lives since we have already “encountered” it. Further, we are better able to digest a painful situation because we explored it more deeply in the unconscious realm. Sometimes, of course, nightmares can tragically terrorize someone and they may require prayer and therapy. But hopefully, we will all know as many positive things in our lives as possible, and our dreams and nightmares can be healing tools that prepare us to proceed along more difficult journeys.