In the Dead of Night, Warns a Student of Nightmares, Childhood Fears May Shatter Sweet Dreams

updated 03/11/1985 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/11/1985 AT 01:00 AM EST

Nearly everyone has had one—that monstrous vision that yanks us out of slumber, heart pounding, adrenaline pumping until we can convince ourselves it was only a dream. Yet if nightmares are figments of our fevered imaginations, says Dr. Ernest Hartmann, director of the Sleep Research Laboratory of the West-Ros-Park Mental Health Center at Lemuel Shattuck Hospital in Boston, their roots are sunk deep in reality. In his book The Nightmare: The Psychology and Biology of Terrifying Dreams (Basic Books, $18.95), Dr. Hartmann maintains that our terrifying dreams, even as adults, spring not from too much liquor or a vindictive pizza but from the insecurities we remember from childhood. Dr. Hartmann, 51, married and the father of two children, is also professor of psychiatry at the Tufts University School of Medicine. He spoke with Reporter Susan Seliger about the demons that trouble our sleep.

What exactly is a nightmare?

It's a long frightening dream that wakes you up, usually around 4, 5 or 6 in the morning. You almost never have nightmares in the first hour or two of deep sleep. You don't have very exciting dreams either. What you do have early are night terrors.

How are night terrors different from nightmares?

People who have night terrors will simply have an awakening and fright, often accompanied by screams, sweating and body movement, and sometimes by sleepwalking. A nightmare is a vividly detailed dream experience, whereas people remember nothing following a night terror. Or else they remember just a simple frightening image—"I am choking" or "Something is sitting on me." That sort of thing.

Does everyone have nightmares?

Most people have a nightmare once or twice a year. Maybe one in 200 people have nightmares every week. In studies of adults, more women report having them, but that may be only because women are more willing to talk about them than men. Among kids aged 6 and under, there are no gender differences.

What kind of person has nightmares?

Let me give a typical example—a woman who thinks of her childhood as not too happy and had a difficult adolescence, with a lot of turmoil, some depression, perhaps drugs, sex, running away from home. She made a suicide attempt or at least thought about it. Now, as an adult, she's in pretty good shape, just a little bit fragile. She is open, sensitive, trusting—maybe too trusting. To sum up, people like this have what I call thin boundaries. It's a whole new way of looking at people that hasn't been recognized by psychologists before.

What does it mean for a person to have "thin boundaries"?

They don't keep things rigidly pigeonholed. As a child grows up he learns to distinguish between himself and others, between fantasy and reality, between dreaming and waking. These boundaries can be thin and fluid or thick and rigid. When a person has thin interpersonal boundaries, he tends to get easily involved, perhaps overinvolved, in relationships. Then there are waking versus sleeping boundaries. Some of us wake immediately, but those with thin boundaries may take as many as 30 minutes before they're fully conscious of being awake. In matters of sexual identity, a person with thick boundaries says, in effect, "I am a man (or a woman), and men do things this way." He's not in doubt. A thin-boundaries person is usually not overtly bisexual, but he might have more sexually ambiguous fantasies.

Just what does this have to do with nightmares?

The thin-boundaries person has not developed the defenses that most people have. Nightmares, in fact, can be seen as the sufferer's failure to keep dangerous and frightening material out of his or her dreams. These people allow sexual and aggressive material to enter into consciousness more than most of us do. They are not "armored."

Why do children usually have more nightmares than adults?

Nightmares almost always occur when people feel vulnerable in some way. We're all like that as children. Most nightmares come at ages 3, 4 and 5—a time when we're just forming egos. Our personalities and our boundaries are thin or fluid. We feel unprotected. Yet it's also a time when we're just beginning to be able to express what's happening to us. I think children have nightmares at ages 1 and 2 also, but they can't tell us about them.

Should parents be concerned if their children are still having nightmares in adolescence?

I think they should take it seriously. It's a danger sign if a child past the ages of 10, 11 or 12 has nightmares frequently. There may be a heightened risk of suicide. They may need therapy or they may just need a friend, to have someone pay more attention to them.

What triggers nightmares?

Stressful or traumatic events that remind us of our childhood vulnerabilities. Being attacked, getting mugged or raped—that sort of thing makes a person feel helpless. But just plain tough times can do that too. When husband and wife or boyfriend and girlfriend suddenly break up, you may be left alone and not know why. You feel scared, alone, depressed. Usually it reminds people of a time in childhood when they didn't get enough support or soothing from their parents.

Are nightmares often stimulated by frightening movies or books?

Yes, but almost always in people who have nightmares anyway.

What about Freud's idea that nightmares spring from feelings of guilt and a desire for punishment?

Freud changed his mind, actually, and he later seemed to avoid the topic. My impression is that he wasn't very happy with his own explanation. I wouldn't say that nightmares have nothing to do with guilt, but I don't believe guilt is a sufficient explanation. You have to be in a vulnerable situation. You have to be afraid that what you've done will lose you the protection you need. The undetected criminal, for example, does not necessarily have nightmares, unless he feels himself in danger. My impression is that artists may well have more nightmares than murderers.

Why do you say that?

Many famous artists reportedly had nightmares. Richard Wagner comes to mind, Dostoyevski, Hawthorne, Goya, Mark Twain, Rimbaud, Poe and Tchaikovsky. Robert Louis Stevenson not only had nightmares but also made use of them. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde was based on a nightmare. Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein, had nightmares frequently, as did the creator of Dracula, Bram Stoker.

If people that have nightmares tend toward genius, do they also tend toward madness?

Yes, I think there is a link between genius and madness, and I believe the thin-boundary condition is that link. But while those who have a lot of nightmares may be more likely to become mentally ill, schizophrenic, that doesn't mean that they will become ill.

Do nightmares occur in all cultures, and are they more common in some than in others?

Obviously, we don't have information about all cultures, but my impression is that nightmares occur widely. All cultures have their stresses, and furthermore, I think the most basic childhood stresses are universal.

Are there any known cases of nightmares having literally frightened people to death?

No, because the person involved would never be able to talk about it. But since nightmares are associated with fluctuations in pulse and blood pressure, it's possible that someone with a fragile cardiovascular condition could die during a nightmare.

Can nightmares serve a positive purpose?

I think all dreams, whether or not we remember them, serve to integrate what happens to you in the course of a day with everything that has happened before, pulling the past and present together. After a disturbing event, it's helpful psychologically to integrate the trauma with other experiences that have preceded it. It knits up the raveled sleave of care.

Is it helpful to analyze your nightmares?

You can often make use of remembered details to learn about your strengths as well as your weaknesses. If you find yourself having more nightmares, you can say, "Hey, is there something that is making me feel vulnerable? Is it reminding me of something about my childhood?" You can't change the past, but as you learn more about yourself, you are able to tackle the question "Where do we go from here?" Nightmares aren't a horrible influence on the outside trying to get you. They're a part of you.

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