Should we or not wake up our partner who is visibly in pain in a bad dream? And what could be the consequences of this abrupt awakening? Science partly answers the question.
Jerky movements, moans, tears… Obviously the person sharing your bed is in the middle of a nightmare and must be going through an unpleasant experience “mentally”. Instinctively, you would like to wake her up to reassure and soothe her. But is this the right thing to do?
Ending the current nightmare is a mistake
For scientists who study sleep, the answer is no: nothing is gained by waking up a person in the middle of a nightmare, for the good reason that this bad dream could then remain in memory.
So during REM sleep, the sleep in which we dream, the brain areas responsible for storing long-term memory show altered activation, so people don’t tend to remember their nightmares. Once the dreamer wakes up, these long-term memory regions return to normal. Most of the time, a person having a nightmare will be indistinguishable from a peaceful dreamer.
“Nightmares are an integral part of dreams”explains Deirdre Barrett, dream researcher at Harvard Medical School in the journal Scientific Americanon October 5, “They almost always occur during REM sleep, a stage of sleep marked by brain activity that closely resembles that of a waking brain. EIn short, your partner shouldn’t even remember their dream, no matter how scary it is.
We also do not wake up the person suffering from a night terror.
If someone seems physically distressed while sleeping like this, shortness of breath, screaming… then it is more likely to be a night terror, a different neurological experience, which mainly affects children .
“During a nightmare, the heart rate increases by seven beats per minute on average, explains Michael Schredl, a dream and sleep researcher at the Central Institute for Mental Health in Central Europe. “If someone moves, talks in their sleep, or sleepwalks while appearing distressed, it is more likely a night terror, which occurs during non-REM sleep.”, explains Schredl. But again, although the event may be impressive: “You should not wake them because they will be disoriented. They will have no memory of the episode if you don’t wake them up.” So take it upon yourself.
Take action when nightmares become recurring
Not waking someone up in the middle of a nightmare does not mean treating the event lightly. Indeed, an anecdotal nightmare is nothing alarming. But when these follow one another, repeat themselves, wake the person up, they can also be a reflection of stressful experiences experienced in daily life or the past. At the start of the COVID pandemic, for example, a study showed that people were having more nightmares. These generally focused on illness, confinement and germs… New, permanent and worrying elements in our lives.
Nightmares can also be the result of a deeper trauma, a traumatic experience, which can possibly slow down a person’s healing, as they relive in their dreams and despite themselves the stress they experience in their life. In this case, it is necessary not to wake the person but to act with a health professional. Follow-up may be necessary to discover and treat the cause of the nightmares.
Image therapy can also work. In a 2020 meta-analysis of studies, researchers found that this treatment, called “image rehearsal therapy,” was likely as effective as medication in stopping post-traumatic nightmares. According to the study, the method can also work for repeated nightmares or bad dreams that come back, sometimes for years. However, according to the authors, “If the nightmares are particularly persistent or distressing, or if they are the result of trauma, it is best to seek professional help.”