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nebule's avatar

Why do we wake up when our dreams get too scary?

Asked by nebule (16439points) April 13th, 2010

It always seems to happen doesn’t it… we’ll be happily plodding along through a dream and then we hit a scary moment…it gets worse…we begin to feel it…really feel scared… perhaps it gets even worse…and then BANG you wake up!

I’m wondering why? and whether or not this has any implications on various philosophical theory of emotions….

and then whether I can be clever and weave it into my essay at all to prove my point…but you guys need not worry about that part :-)...

But anyway…any ideas why we wake up at this point? Or does anyone continue to sleep through nightmares…they carry on sleeping…and you wake up in the morning later…thinking “by God that was a terrifying dream I had last night” but not wake up directly in it….?

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28 Answers

Chongalicious's avatar

Mine finish :O
I always wake up in tears!

BabylonFree's avatar

Because Freddy Crougher is up to get us.

TheOnlyException's avatar

Huh. Wow. Never really questioned this before, just accepted it. Nice question.

I guess it is our instinct for survival. If the dream is ‘scary’, then clearly we must feel we are in immediate danger. You know how you wake up and your heart is beating fast like you’ve just run a mile yet you’ve just been lying there the whole time?
You have released adrenaline, the fight, flight, or fright reaction. Your body has told you something is up with your environment and told you to act on it (even though it is a dream, you THINK it is real enough).

The adrenaline breaks down stored carbohydrate (glycogen) in your muscles for extra energy, so of course you wake up.

Wow.. didn’t expect to give such a sciencey answer… haha! Hope I was useful 0_o

Gemini's avatar

This is only my opinion, not expertise by any means, but I believe our amazing minds wake us up for the purpose of protecting us from the outcome of our dreams. I have never been caught when being chased or hit the ground when falling…..etc….I always wake up.

JLeslie's avatar

I think we tend to remember dreams we wake from, I think we are more likely to wake during scary dreams, because generally speaking I bet our sleep is more troubled to begin with. I have bad dreams when I am going through troubles in my waking life. When I am having a lot of stress I wake up more in the middle of the night with or without remembering dreams. When I am not under stress I rarely remember any dreams at all, the sleeping world is a blank world.

rebbel's avatar

I think @Gemini has quite a good one there.
I too, never experienced hitting the pavement after falling from an apartment building.
I mean, imagine, that must be gory, even in a dream.

nebule's avatar

yes I’m pretty sure that there is a theory about this somewhere… @rebbel something to do with experiencing something so horrific in a dream that your body would think it was really happening and ..die perhaps… I don’t know… maybe someone else can enlighten…

excellent answers @TheOnlyException and @Gemini I was thinking along these lines!!

CMaz's avatar

Because fun has to end.

ucme's avatar

When I was a kid my Mother told me after a particularly bad dream, if you die in a dream then this happens for real.Gee thanks Mum! Anyway did the trick, that’s why I wake up on the occasion freaky dreams do occur.

Chongalicious's avatar

@lynneblundell I have heard the myth of “If you hit the ground in a dream about falling, you die.” A friend of mine has these dreams all the time, always hits the ground. He’s still alive to tell me about it; but it is a hell of a shocker for him.

philosopher's avatar

When we are afraid we run. At least animals do. It maybe related to an innate drive to run away from what we fear.
We might stand our ground against another human but most would prefer to avoid dangerous animals and murders.

snowberry's avatar

@ucme I appreciate your mom’s idea, but that doesn’t much make sense. How could she- or anyone know? Only the dreamer could, and they’d be dead, so nobody could ask them.

zophu's avatar

My nightmares (at least the ones I remember) usually turn around and aren’t so bad. For example, if I’m being chased by a psychopath, I calm down and set a trap instead of digging myself in a hole. As I get a handle on my nightmare, it gradually progresses into better things. like machine guns and dolphins and giant balloon worlds

When things get too scary or too disturbing, I seem to wake myself up. Sometimes the feeling of alarm or depression carries over into the real world and I have to walk around a little before going back to sleep. Sometimes my entire day can be ruined by having a really depressing dream—even if I can’t remember it.

ucme's avatar

@snowberry Yeah I never said it made sense just that it made an impression on a young furtive imagination.Mums can be teasers sometimes I guess.

anartist's avatar

My instinctt tells me that if you die in your dreams, you really will die—but logically, I think it is because the physical reactions caused by the fear wake one up—things like rapid breathing, increased heart rate, muscle rigidity. Similarly, physical reactions to orgasmic sex dreams often wake one up.
Maybe it is possible that fear dreams wake one up so the physical symptoms won’t go too far—like an out-of-control heartbeat—and really kill you.

evandad's avatar

Many times a shock to your dream self will wake you up. I can remember being glad about having been drug out of many bad dreams that way.

ChocolateReigns's avatar

Maybe because your mind notices this is leading to you dying, and ends it.

Pandora's avatar

People who suffer from sleep apnea tend to get a lot of nightmares. I think its your body response to waking you up from a physical problem you may be suffering. With sleep apnea people will have problems breathing. Snorers also have problems with nightmares. I notice that at times when I have a nightmare, I may have fallen asleep on my arm and it was losing circulation or I wake up with a foot cramp. Or sometimes its just a guilty concious working overtime. Like @anartist said even an out of control heart beat.

Narl's avatar

I’ve died in my dreams. In my most recent one, a guy slit my throat open… Then I was a spirit looking down on my body.

anartist's avatar

Full article
Dream sleep is an intriguing stage of sleep. It is characterized by rapid eye movements (hence the name rapid eye movement sleep), intense visual imagery in the form of dreams, significant physiological activity, and heightened emotional activity in the brain (particularly emotions such as fear and anxiety). Because REM sleep is such an active period for the brain and body, we are more likely to awaken from this sleep stage than deep sleep. Many areas of the brain are highly active during dream sleep, particularly those involved in emotions and stress, as evidenced by increased blood flow and energy expenditure (increased use of oxygen and glucose). However, the area of the brain that is involved in complex cognitive functions and self awareness- the frontal lobes – become inactive during dream sleep. Dream sleep is often called paradoxical sleep because, except for muscle paralysis so that we can’t act our dreams, our heart rate, blood pressure, and breathing rate are as high or higher than during waking, and our brain wave patterns resemble wakefulness.

anartist's avatar

@Narl Me too. Then dreams of being undead and unable to communicate with the living.

zophu's avatar

. . . I’ve never died in my dreams before.

I once had a dream that I was in a mountain valley facing a gigantic forest. From within the forest a monstrous but majestic howl reverberated through all the air. A sound heard once by our primitive ancestors perhaps, but now only in our dreams. I built a house out of sand, then burned it to black glass as I waited. When it came, I thought I was ready. A humongous Kirby-cat-thing rolled through the centurion trees, bellowing immortal truths. Deafening. I had to wake up. It was too awesome. Too great for my eyes.

So, maybe fear for life is not the only reason one wakes from dreams. Maybe sometimes, it’s fear of seeing the true meaning of the universe… Kirby-Cat-Thing!

Hexr's avatar

Because the only reason we’re aware we’re scared is physiological arousal. Physiological arousal is the opposite of sleep. Therefore, we wake.

talljasperman's avatar

self preservation… you would have a stroke if you didn’t

jeanmay's avatar

That is such an interesting question! I really like @Gemini and @TheOnlyException‘s answers, that our physical responses to fear cause us to wake.

I frequently suffer from what we call ‘night terrors’, where I suffer a dream so bad it causes me to cry out and wake the whole house up. What’s funny is my Dad has the same thing. I’ve heard him do it and it was really freaky – like hearing what I must sound like to my family when it happens to me. So bizarre.

nebule's avatar

@Narl you just reminded me of a dream actually in which John Travolta shot me… I felt it…but probably not I imagine exactly like what really getting shot would feel like….

@Hexr but can’t you be aware that you are scared before you wake surely… I’ve remembered being scared in dreams before waking…

@zophu um…can you elaborate on the dream…immortal truths etc? I’m loving your idea!!!

@anartist This: ”However, the area of the brain that is involved in complex cognitive functions and self awareness- the frontal lobes – become inactive during dream sleep. Dream sleep is often called paradoxical sleep because, except for muscle paralysis so that we can’t act our dreams, our heart rate, blood pressure, and breathing rate are as high or higher than during waking, and our brain wave patterns resemble wakefulness.” is fabulous!!! Thank you…just what I was looking for!!! :-))))))))

zophu's avatar

All I could do with that dream, is piece together the imagery, the sound, and the emotions. I did my best to express what I remember it feeling like. Obscure, ridiculous, but at the same time, I felt like an ape discovering the monolith.

Hexr's avatar

@lynneblundell yes but there is a threshold that is reached in order for wakefulness to happen

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