Childhood games with violent twists, an army of shadowy masked men wielding guns, and everyday people on the brink of financial ruin fighting for their lives — the premise of the popular Netflix series Squid Game is the stuff of nightmares.
If you’re one of the millions of people who binge-watched the dystopian hit show (Netflix reported on Twitter in mid-October that 111 million viewers had tuned in), you know what we’re talking about. And psychologists and sleep doctors who study dreaming aren’t surprised if the show is seeping into your non-waking hours.
When you watch something that resonates with you (whether it’s because it’s deeply moving or deeply disturbing), it’s going to stick with you, particularly if you watched a lot of the show in a short amount of time — and particularly if you’ve done so just before bed, says Michael Grandner, PhD, an associate professor and director of the sleep and health research program at the University of Arizona in Tucson.
“You’re immersed in this show, and you’ve invested in the characters. It’s an emotional roller coaster, and your mind needs to process it all,” he says.
Google searches for the term “squid dream” have indeed spiked since the show’s debut on September 17, according to Google Trends data.
So why exactly do we take this emotional processing to bed with us? Here’s what Grandner and other dream experts say is important to know about why we dream and, more specifically, why we have nightmares.
What Causes Nightmares Anyway — and What Does ‘Squid Game’ Have to Do With It?
Sleep medicine research hasn’t yet pinpointed precisely why we dream.
In a nutshell, theories suggest that our dreams — and nightmares — are our brains processing what we’ve encountered during the day and committing certain things to memory, says Deirdre Barrett, PhD, an assistant professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School and author of Pandemic Dreams, which details the common themes recurring in people’s dreams since the emergence of COVID-19.
“The content in our dreams correlates with our daytime concerns, but it shows up in this more visual, more emotional, less linear, and less logical way,” she says.
Research does show that sleep plays a key role in how and why we make memories and commit certain information to our long-term memory. And our dreams are thought to help with this by consolidating memories, processing emotions, and doing some mental housekeeping, cataloguing our thoughts, feelings, and memories, according to the Sleep Foundation.
If the information our brain is cataloguing is distressing (like that from a disturbing TV show), it then makes sense that the ensuing dreams would also be distressing, Barrett explains. Stress and anxiety as well as trauma, substance misuse, and sleep deprivation are all known nightmare triggers, according to the Mayo Clinic.
Unaddressed or repressed emotions can trigger nightmares, too. A study published in the journal Dreaming in 2017 found that people grappling with negative emotions like sadness, fear, anger, and anxiety in their waking lives caused a manifestation of these feelings within their dreams, particularly if they repressed those emotions during their waking hours.
When it comes to unsettling entertainment, Barrett adds that narratives that overlap with real-world anxieties may have a heightened effect on our dreams.
Take Squid Game. Its themes include feelings of helplessness from debt, struggling with being a good parent, and playing childhood games we’ve all come across in the schoolyard.
There’s a lot there that might resonate with viewers (like you). “Those things are likelier to strike a chord for a lot of people than witches and vampires,” Barrett says — and therefore be more likely to disturb your dreams.
Are Nightmares Bad for Your Sleep?
Don’t be alarmed the next time you wake up in a cold sweat from a nightmare. If you’re having them every now and then, experts say, this is normal and probably harmless to your health.
If bad dreams, nightmares, or night terrors are regularly stopping you from getting enough or good enough quality sleep, it might be cause for concern.
Both bad dreams and nightmares involve disturbing content, but bad dreams usually feel less real and don’t wake you up. Nightmares, on the other hand, tend to be more vivid and wake you up from your sleep, explains Joanne Davis, PhD, a clinical psychologist at the University of Tulsa, specializing in researching nightmares and sleep problems.
Nightmares typically occur during the rapid eye movement (REM) part of our sleep cycles. In addition to stress and anxiety, mental health conditions (like depression or PTSD) and some medication can contribute to nightmares, too, according to the Sleep Foundation.
Nightmares are only considered a disorder if you have them frequently (to the tune of at least once a week over the course of a month) or they’re interfering with your sleep, mood, and daytime functioning, according to the Mayo Clinic.
If this is you, talk to your primary care provider, who can help get to the root of the problem. Treating an underlying sleep issue may help. Or treating an underlying mental health issue might help.
It’s up to you to determine how much your nightmares are affecting your daily life and your health. Some people have recurring nightmares that don’t disrupt their day-to-day life at all, while others may find themselves having troubling thoughts or struggling to fall asleep and stay asleep for weeks on end because of their nightmares, Davis says.
“Some nightmares are so intense they cause people to avoid sleep all together,” Davis says. That’s a problem, and those people should seek help.
Night terrors (sometimes called “sleep terrors”) are a completely different parasomnia, Davis adds. A person experiencing a night terror may show signs of panic or terror in their sleep, from screaming to flailing or kicking. People experience night terrors during non-REM sleep, meaning they’ll have no recollection of them happening when they wake up, according to the Mayo Clinic.
“When people have night terrors, they might open their eyes, move around, or scream, but there’s no consciousness,” Davis says.
With night terrors, the experience is usually scarier for the parent or partner sleeping next to you, Barrett says. The person who experiences the terror isn’t conscious while it’s happening, won’t wake up from it, and won’t remember it.
If they’re occurring frequently (two or more times per week) or if they’re causing other problems (like injury, sleepwalking, or sleep talking), it’s worth seeking professional help from behavioral sleep medicine experts.
What Can You Do to Have Fewer Nightmares?
Whether or not you’re having nightmares enough to classify as a disorder, they can be unpleasant. Try these tips to have fewer of them:
Don’t Watch Stressful Movies and TV Shows Right Before Bedtime
This is the obvious one. If you’re prone to having nightmares after watching an episode of Squid Game, Stranger Things, American Horror Story, or some other distressing entertainment, don’t binge-watch a few episodes right before lying down to sleep.
If you can’t stay away, create a buffer zone where you do something or watch something to lighten the mood before sleep, Davis says. She’ll put on an episode of the Great British Bake Off to wind down after watching a thriller.
Understand how scary movies and TV shows affect you, Barrett says. For some people, digital media is escapism from their daily worries, while others find the content sparks their anxiety. If you’re the latter group, taking extra precaution to steer away from anything that might upset you…
Read More:Why ‘Squid Game’ Is Giving You Nightmares