Your boyfriend’s dream confirms what we’ve known about REM for a long time. Events occurring in the physical body often are incorporated into the “story-line” of on-going dreams. In your boyfriend’s case, his difficulty breathing during sleep is causing him to dream of being short of breath! He’s also dreaming of having a meeting with “the grim reaper.” Does this mean that your boyfriend’s sleep apnea is a life-threatening condition? The answer is yes! His dream is a cry for help!
Snoring is always a sign of difficulty breathing during sleep. Your boyfriend’s snoring is caused by a partially collapsed airway (the air is being sucked through the relaxed tissues of the neck, which creates the snoring sound), while the gasping for air and headaches both indicate severe oxygen desaturation.
The fact that he has experienced this dream since childhood suggests his difficulty breathing is long-standing. (If he still has his tonsils and adenoids in, he may want to consider removing them, to open his airway). The stairwell he descends most likely is a clever, and accurate, dream metaphor for steadily decreasing oxygen levels during these periods of apnea. The presence of the grim reaper? The grim reaper signals danger—in any language!
The great news about sleep apnea is that it is very easy to treat effectively—and without surgery. Because your boyfriend may not be functioning at 100% capacity (tired during the day, difficulty remembering dates and keeping appointments) I encourage you to take it upon yourself to make an appointment for him at a sleep disorder center near you. If possible, try to go to the appointment with him. Your account of his sleep behavior—the snoring, stopping breathing, gasping and awakenings—will be very valuable to the physician.
Your boyfriend most likely will be asked to spend a night in a sleep lab, where he will be allowed, at some point during the night, to try a remarkable breathing device called a Nasal CPAP. This mask will eliminate the apnea, and the snoring. (Lucky you!) Once your boyfriend’s apnea is treated, his dreams of the grim reaper will vanish, and that will be a welcome sign of recovery!
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