Are There Benefits to Having Nightmares?

Although they're associated with discomfort, having nightmares has its benefits. One of them is exposure to fearful situations.
Are There Benefits to Having Nightmares?
Maria Fatima Seppi Vinuales

Written and verified by the psychologist Maria Fatima Seppi Vinuales.

Last update: 22 March, 2023

We often think of nightmares with absolute revulsion; after all, we don’t like their contents and they generate discomfort. However, both pleasant dreams and nightmares are part of our life and also have a meaning.

Although nightmares are related to dreams that generate intense fear or a threat, they are attributed with a certain benefit. Even so, it’s essential to know when to getting help, since sometimes, they are the expression of a deeper issue. In the following space, we tell you more about this.

The causes of nightmares

Los beneficios de las pesadillas son abundantes
There are several factors that can affect the quality of sleep and the frequent occurrence of nightmares.

Let’s start by saying what nightmares are. According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders in its latest edition (DSM-V), they are a type of parasomnia that involves the repeated occurrence of terrifying dreams, which may awaken the affected person and whose content generates intense fear or discomfort.

In general, they appear in the REM phase, which occurs between 90 to 110 minutes after falling asleep, or in the second half of the night, which is the most frequent. When investigating the reasons for nightmares, there are multiple possible causes.

There are perspectives that are focused from the point of view of neuroscience and psychophysiology, while there are other approaches that are oriented around an unconscious that seeks to give us a message or give resolution to a desire. The interpretations are not necessarily mutually exclusive.

  • The presence of chronic stress also underlies nightmares, so it’s important to address both issues hand in hand, as they can involve significant impairment of daily functioning.
  • The concern about nightmares was very recurrent from the Covid-19 pandemic onwards. In this case, the high burden of stress and uncertainty, together with concern for one’s own and loved ones’ health, became the trigger.
  • On the other hand, nightmares can often occur after a heavy dinner, with food that is difficult to digest, which prevents a good night’s rest.
  • They can also occur due to being under the influence of alcohol or other substances.
  • There are ages when there are often more nightmares or night terrors. In this case, they are very frequent in childhood and adolescence, and are be part of a process of brain development.

The benefits of having nightmares

Los beneficios de las pesadillas son que ayudan a anticiparse
It is said that nightmares bring benefits because they could help a person to anticipate possible difficult scenarios.

It’s difficult to think that nightmares bring benefits, given that they are associated with bad sleep and negative emotions. However, a study conducted by researchers at the University of Geneva, the University Hospitals of Geneva and the University of Wisconsin in the United States suggests some positive effects.

According to the publication, neuroscientific theories propose that the emotions experienced in dreams contribute to the resolution of emotional distress and preparation for future affective reactions.

In other words, they may help to act more safely in potentially dangerous real-life situations. As observed, nightmares caused more activity in the medial prefrontal cortex, i.e. the brain area that regulates the fear response. Let’s take a closer look at the possible benefits.

Stress relief

One of the main benefits of nightmares is stress reduction. This is achieved by allowing to adopt other roles and to do actions that in reality are not allowed or are inhibited for some reason.

That is to say, they propose a space to take alternative ‘exits’. For example, think about a nightmare in which a person argues with his boss and yells at him very loudly. In real life, this is probably not good, but after the dream, it is liberating.

Confronting emotions

In some cases, the sensations experienced in nightmares allow us to confront fears and anxieties. In fact, sometimes they seem so real that one feels the physical exhaustion of it. Even so, by reviewing the events in wakefulness, it’s possible to adopt a different perception of what happened and reflect on it.

In nightmares, the events are often magnified, but they allow us to think of a ‘what if’. Thus, we come face to face with feared situations and rehearse possible responses.

Finding solutions

In many cases, the interpretation of nightmares is the starting point for solving issues that arise in real life. They also enable new ideas for dealing with situations that tend to be difficult.

Sharing our nightmares with others often has a cathartic effect. It’s liberating and provides relief.

There is also something good about nightmares

Nightmares would be an unreal scenario in which we can rehearse different roles and cope with certain concerns. One of its benefits is that, by anticipating a feared scenario, we become familiar with it.

For this reason, we not only prepare ourselves, but also predispose ourselves differently, both at an attitudinal level and in terms of the body.

Even so, these episodes are serious and a reason for consultation when they are recurrent or make it difficult to rest – for example, if they interrupt your sleep and it’s not possible to fall asleep again. This is also the case if you feel like it i’s necessary to follow certain behaviors after having them, such as leaving the lights on.

In these cases, you must try to improve your sleep hygiene through habits such as going to bed early, limiting your consumption of sugar and caffeine in the hours prior to rest, and avoiding screens before bed, among other things.

Many times, nightmares are a symptom of clinical conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, and anxiety. In this sense, it’s a good idea to consult a professional to recover your well-being.

It might interest you...
Postpartum Nightmares: Which Are The Most Common?
Step To Health
Read it in Step To Health
Postpartum Nightmares: Which Are The Most Common?

This article explains the causes of postpartum nightmares, which are the most frequent and what can be done to avoid them.

  • American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Guía de consulta de los criterios diagnósticos del DSM-5®. Guía de consulta de los criterios diagnósticos del DSM-5®. American Psychiatric Publishing.
  • STERPENICH, Virginie et al. Fear in dreams and in wakefulness: evidence for day/night affective homeostasis. In: Human Brain Mapping, 2019. doi: 10.1002/hbm.24843
  • Carrillo-Mora, Paul, Barajas-Martínez, Karina Gabriela, Sánchez-Vázquez, Itzel, & Rangel-Caballero, María Fernanda. (2018). Trastornos del sueño: ¿qué son y cuáles son sus consecuencias?. Revista de la Facultad de Medicina (México)61(1), 6-20. Recuperado en 01 de junio de 2021, de
  • Miró Morales, Elena, & Martínez Narváez, Pilar (2004). Tratamientos psicológicos de las pesadillas: una revisión. International Journal of Psychology and Psychological Therapy, 4(1),11-36.[fecha de Consulta 1 de Junio de 2021]. ISSN: 1577-7057. Disponible en:

The contents of this publication are for informational purposes only. At no time can they serve to facilitate or replace the diagnoses, treatments, or recommendations of a professional. Consult with your trusted specialist if you have any doubts and seek their approval before beginning any procedure.