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What Causes Nightmares: 10+ Possible Causes And More About Them

Whether it’s falling off a skyscraper, being lost in a maze, or being chased by strange creatures, our worst nightmare episodes can cause such profound fear that the memory lingers on for decades.

While pleasant dreams can excite the mind and create some fantastic, enjoyable imagery, a taste of the dark side of things can often be off-putting, downright disturbing, and leave you wondering what the point of it all is.

What is the point of it all?

Why We Have Nightmares

Almost everyone has had some nightmare episodes in their lifetime. These, often graphic, dreams incorporate images that evoke intense feelings of terror, anxiety, fear, distress, or shock. Consequently, unlike other forms of dreams, nightmares typically end up jolting the sleeper awake.

The occasional nightmare is rarely ever a cause for concern and seldom requires any intervention on your part.

However, similar to other dream types, there is still no definite scientific explanation for why we get nightmares. The issue further compounds when you factor in the fact that the dream world for each person is extremely individualized, innately subjective, and almost impossible to document reliably.

Leading theories speculate that dreams—and nightmares offer the brain an avenue for processing memories, stimuli, emotions, and information accumulated during the daytime.

Lending credence to this idea is the fact that, for most people, their dreams tend to include elements from their regular waking life. Dreams often mirror aspects of daily life, often with a few abstract twists here and there. Some sleepers even report dreams that feature a true-to-life autobiographical account of past experiences or old personal memories.

Plus, there are no age limits to dreams and nightmares. While children and teens post a significantly higher rate of nightmare occurrences, in one study, researchers found that, of the sampled adults, 85% report experiences at least one nightmare in the past year.

However, while there is still no consensus on why we dream or have nightmares, scientists do agree that these night time movie shows appear to have some significance.

Note: The intense dreams that often result in nightmares tend to occur during REM sleep, which is when the brain is at its busiest. During this phase of sleep, the brain simulates wake time activity, creating your dream world, and the only thing that keeps you from moving around is the fact your muscles enter a state of temporary paralysis.

Theories for why we dream range from memory consolidation, the management of subconscious thought, as an outlet for repressed, unfulfilled wishes, to those that chalk it up to random chemical signal firing in the brain during rest.

However, when it comes to why dreams become nightmares, several top studies point to a host of possible daytime influences.

1. Stress and Anxiety

Like with almost every possible health, with nightmares, psychological strains like stress and anxiety can be causal agents or contributing factors.

Continually dealing with high levels of stress is one common element that can lead to inadequate, disrupted sleep, and by extension, people in such a state post a higher predisposition to experiencing nightmares.

Furthermore, being in an anxious state is a frequent trigger for a nightmare attack. Plus, these feelings can even carry on into the dreams, as one study identified anxiety as one of the five most common themes in nightmare plotlines.

Some specific strains of anxiety, including performance anxiety and posttraumatic stress disorder, are even more notorious for evoking episodes, and they can often trigger recurrent nightmares.

Also Read: How To Deal With Sleep Anxiety

2. Traumatic Experiences

Closely related to stress are traumatic experiences, which you can even think of as high-stress episodes that linger in your subconscious for a long time.

Going through distressing events like accidents, natural disasters, war, or domestic violence can be one critical trigger of posttraumatic stress disorder, which can then cause incessant bouts of nightmares.

In one report by the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs, researchers estimated that 52% to 96% of people with PTSD experience recurrent nightmares, compared to only 3% of the general populace.

3. Medication Side Effects

Another common trigger for nightmares are medications that affect the body’s neurotransmitters. Here, the worst offenders are mood-altering drugs like antidepressants, barbiturates, and narcotics.

An unwanted effect of many of these substances is that they can alter the balance of brain chemistry, and this can, in turn, affect REM sleeps and make your dreams go haywire.

According to the American Academy of Family Physicians’ journal, abuse of or withdrawal from alcohol, tranquilizers, opiates, as well as other narcotics and recreational drugs can also trigger vivid recurrent nightmares.

Furthermore, there is also some evidence that even non-psychological medications, including some blood pressure medications, may also bring on nightmares as side effects.

4. Media Consumption

For children, one of the most significant predictors of nightmare episodes can be how scary the last movie they watched was. Even amongst adults, fear-mongering news cycles and intense, suspenseful shows can have the same effect.

While hairraising content won’t have too much of an effect on most people, for some, consuming them can be the difference between a good night’s sleep or a rocky one with recurrent nightmare episodes.

5. Depression

Yet another psychological trigger for nightmare attacks is being in a depressed state. With severe cases of depression comes bouts of negative self attitude and self-talk, feeling of alienation, emotional estrangement, and distrust that can all carry over into your dreams.

Tip: For depression, stress, and anxiety-induced recurring nightmares, the American Psychological Association, the American Psychiatric Association, and the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, all provide resources that can help you locate a mental health professional near you that is qualified to attend to such issues.

6. Sleep Disorders

People with underlying sleep disorders like restless leg syndrome and obstructive sleep apnea often also face an increased risk of experiencing nightmares more often.

Many sleep problems typically result in interrupted sleep, which can increase the likelihood of nightmare episodes and enhance dream recall. Furthermore, with sleep apnea and other related conditions, the reduced airflow leads to decreased blood oxygen levels, a condition that several studies link with bad dreams.

7. Eating Before Bed

The late-night pre-bedtime snack may be doing more than adding an inch to your waistline. Eating too close to bed significantly increases your risk factor for indigestion, which can lead to poor sleep, nightmares, or even sleep-disturbing conditions like heartburn.

Furthermore, late meals typically also cause a spike in your metabolism, which increases activity in your brain and nervous system, potentially enhancing the possibility of more intense dreams.

8. Sleep Deprivation

Anything that takes sleep away from you, by principle, can put you at an increased risk for recurrent nightmare episodes. Whether it is voluntary or insomnia and fatigue-induced, losing sleep

9. Edgy Sleeping Environment

The state of your sleeping environment can also go a long way in determining how well you sleep, and by extension, how often you get nightmares.

In addition to affecting your comfort levels, elements like the temperature of the room, the presence of certain smells, and the smoothness of your mattress can influence your dream contents as well.

In one study of 15 sleepers, the subjects reported a correlation in the pleasantness of their dreams with how enjoyable the smells that the researchers exposed them to while sleeping.

Other Factors

Other potential elements that may contribute to recurrent nightmare episodes include:

  • Respiratory problems
  • Thyroid disease
  • Mental health issues
  • Neurological disorders
  • Migraines
  • Prolonged daytime pain from injury or any medical condition

Recurring Nightmares (Nightmare Disorder)

While the occasional nightmare is a normal part of life for most people, in rare cases, they can get out of hand.

Once the frequency of your nightmare experiences increases to the point where they frequently disrupt your sleep, negatively impact your daytime behavior and function, or cause bedtime anxiety, you are in nightmare disorder territory and should consider seeking professional help.

Tip: If you suspect that you have a nightmare disorder, you should consider visiting your healthcare provider or a sleep specialist for a sleep study and diagnosis.

Nightmare disorder (recurring nightmares) is a clinically-recognized sleep problem that can stem from anyone or the combination of multiple factors from the list of causes highlighted in this article.

Frequently Asked Questions

How do I stop having nightmares?

Improving your sleep hygiene and taking care of any underlying conditions are the best measures you can take to reduce your risk of experiencing recurrent nightmares. However, in extreme cases, you may need to visit a professional healthcare provider for further guidance.

More: 7 Ways To Prevent Nightmares

Are nightmares a sign of mental illness?

While the occasional nightmare is rarely ever a cause for concern, recurrent nightmares could be associated with other more severe psychiatric disorders like borderline personality disorder and schizophrenia.

At what age do nightmares start?

Nightmare experiences are pretty commonplace amongst young children. Kids can begin to have frightening dreams from as early as two years old. Between 3-6 years, the frequency of dreams often ramps up and then tapers off from there.

By the time most people reach adulthood, the chances are that they will be having about one nightmare a month or less.