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I Don't Get It: REM Sleep and Nightmares

“REM” was always one of the words that flew around everywhere I was, but I never understood the meaning of it. Indeed, I knew it was about “Rapid Eye Movement,” and it was somehow related to being in a deep sleep, but that was about it. The more I read into REM, I realised that all the nightmares I have had (and trust me, there have been weird ones) were correlated to it.

What is REM?

REM is a phase of stage associated with dreaming. During REM sleep, a person’s activity, breathing, heart rate and blood pressure increase, and their eyes rapidly move while closed. In this stage, the person may physically and/or vocally act out vividly, often experiencing unpleasant dreams, and by extension, nightmares during the REM sleep.

Nightmares and REM

Nightmares occur during REM sleep usually in the last stage of the sleep cycle. In this stage, we are on the cusp of waking up, where memories begin to integrate and consolidate. The images become more vivid and terrifying, as it is a stage where the brain is producing and recollecting nightmares. These episodes may continue to occur until you wake up in the morning. Because periods of REM sleep become progressively longer as the night progresses, one may experience nightmares in the early morning hours rather than the earlier stages of sleep.

These dreams are often described as action-filled and violent, where the person dreaming is often being confronted, attacked or chased by a person, animal or thing. So, when a person wakes up from an episode of REM, they may be more rapidly alert of their surroundings and can recall the terrifying, unusual dream in great detail.

What happens to our bodies when we are experiencing REM

When the nightmare occurs, it causes the person going through REM to be temporarily paralysed, where your muscles are relaxed, so the activities in the dreams cannot be physically expressed. This temporary paralysis acts as a safety measure, so you do not react to the vision playing out in your head.

However, your mind is awake, so REM hallucinates sensations such as pressure on your chest or limbs or even having an out-of-body experience. Further, this may be verbally expressed, where the person experiencing REM may respond to the dreams they are having. This reaction can include laughing, shouting, cursing and other forms of emotional outbursts.

The people who experience REM are not typically aware of any behaviours they are exhibiting during an episode. During these disturbing mental experiences, if the person awakens they are associated with symptoms of physical arousal; they may be experiencing a heightened state of distress, resulting in an elevated heart rate. It may be so intense that the person could experience difficulty returning to sleep and might cause the person to be anxious and confused.

What causes REM?

There are varying factors to a higher risk of nightmares during REM. This may include, but not limited to:

• Sleep deprivation: after a period of insufficient sleep, a person often experiences REM, triggering vivid dreams and nightmares

• Drugs: Many drugs can increase the frequency and intensity of dreams, including illicit substances or prescription medications

• Mental Conditions: Nightmares are often reported at much higher rates by people with mental health disorders like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, general anxiety disorder, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia. People with PTSD may have intense nightmares where they relive traumatic events.

• Stress and Anxiety: Sad, traumatic, or worrisome situations that induce stress and fear may provoke nightmares. People with chronic stress and anxiety may be more likely to develop a nightmare disorder

Is there any benefit to REM?

There is considerable research to support that REM sleep and dreaming assists in regulating emotional reactivity and reframing negative experiences. In other words, REM sleep is important to one’s sleep cycle because it stimulates the areas of your brain that are essential in learning, making, or retaining memories. This is because REM sleep offers the right neutral environment for the brain to change and be able to retain information, recall memories, consolidate memories, and learn. Additionally, experiencing REM sleep helps boost feel-good chemicals like serotonin, which helps us return to the normal, restorative sleep patterns critical to our health. In other words, this period of intense dreaming allows our sleep rhythm to reset itself.

Conversely, if REM sleep is restricted or does not happen as often, it is argued that new memories cannot form as easily to boost alertness and attention. It has been suggested that being deprived of REM sleep interferes with implicit learning, which occurs outside a person’s awareness. The interference of the implicit learning causes impairments in automatic tasks or activities that don’t require conscious recollection.

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