Dreams and nightmares

Time travelling, flying to distant or even fictitious places or squandering a lottery prize: In the dream world into which we disappear at night everything seems possible. However, despite intensive research, we still do not know exactly why we dream at all.


What are dreams?

Dreams are experiences through brain activity during sleep. We dream during deep sleep and during so-called REM sleep. REM stands for Rapid Eye Movement. In this sleep phase we move our eyes back and forth beneath the closed eyelids and we have the most vivid and most emotional dreams, especially in the early morning hours. Children in particular have many dreams but also significantly more often nightmares.


What do dreams mean?

The interpretation of dreams goes back a long way: in the Old Testament Joseph helps the Egyptian pharaoh by interpreting a dream; in antiquity dream interpretation was regarded as a profession. The depth-psychology based interpretation of dreams began with Sigmund Freud's book "The Interpretation of Dreams" around 1900. Dreams and talking about them also play an important role in modern psychotherapy.


Various hypotheses on the function of dreams are discussed in modern dream research:

  • Dreams are a simulation of our social life in order to train our social abilities.
  • Dreams are a simulation of threatening situations to train us for situations of danger.
  • Dreams have no evolutionary function and “simply” process experiences.

Did you already know?

If we are woken up by an alarm clock, we remember dreams less often. The sudden shock often makes us forget the pictures.

Memory of dreams

Although we almost always dream at night, not all of us can remember their dreams:

  • Only 51% of Germans remember their dreams.
  • Reading apparently helps: 63% of those who browse a book before going to sleep can remember their dreams in the morning.
  • Those who have a lighter sleep remember more.
  • Creative people have many dream memories and imaginative dreams but also nightmares.

Possible meaning of dream patterns

According to dream researchers, most dreams can be classified into seven recurring patterns that could have the following meaning:

  • Persecution: Fear of something that one wants to avoid and that one does not want to deal with.
  • Traps: Fear of losing everything.
  • Examination: Feeling that you are not sufficiently well prepared.
  • Search for a toilet: Urgent need whose satisfaction is made more difficult by the circumstances.
  • Being naked: Feeling inadequate or out of place in a situation.
  • Arriving late: Fear of not being able to do everything.
  • Death of close persons: Fear of not getting along without a certain person in life.


Basically, there are no universally valid dream interpretations. Dreams are individual and depend on the life situation and the experiences of the dreamer.

letsleep tips

  • Relaxation also leads to relaxed dreams because emotionally charging media, personal stress and unsettled questions are reflected in dreams.
  • Before falling asleep, let the beautiful and pleasant things that happened to you during the day pass in review. Thereby nightmares become less likely.
  • For more dream memories: Put pen and paper next to the bed. The feeling of being able to take notes helps.
  • Avoid alcohol consumption. It negatively influences REM sleep and thus the most active dream phases.
  • Let yourself be gently woken up (e.g. by means of a light alarm clock), stay in bed and try to remember the dream.


Nightmares are dreams connotated with negative feelings or even frightening dreams. About 12% of Germans suffer from nightmares at least once a week. The occurrence of nightmares is promoted by stress and psychological strain.

Nightmares can also occur as side effects of medication. If you may encounter them from time to time but they do not bother you much, you do not need to do anything about them. However, those who suffer from very intense nightmares should do something against them. In addition to a medical examination, the following procedures can be helpful:


  • Relaxation: Stress can be reduced through autogenic training, yoga or meditation.
  • Imagery Rehearsal Therapy: A therapeutic approach in which dreams are relived in the imagination and given a good ending.
  • Exposure: Dealing with the frightening topic or situation until it is no longer a source of fear.
  • Practising lucid dreams: During a lucid dream the dreamer knows that he is in a dream and that the experience is not real. Thus, dream contents can be controlled and changed.
  • Hypnosis: In a hypnotized state one can think back into the dream and invent a good ending.
Riemann, D. (2007). Träume. In H. Peter, T. Penzel & J. H. Peter (Hrsg.), Enzyklopädie der Schlafmedizin (S. 1240-1245), Heidelberg: Springer;
Schredl, S. (2013). Träume. Heidelberg: Springer; Thünker, J. & Pietrowsky, R. (2010). Alpträume: Ein Therapiemanual. Göttingen: Hogrefe