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What causes nightmares? Your guide to banishing bad dreams

What Causes Nightmares

Are you sick of nightmares running your sleep?

Aside from their emotional impact, nightmares can be a real terror when you’re struggling to get a good night’s rest. They pump up your adrenaline, raise cortisol levels, and make it difficult to get back to sleep when you’re jolted awake by disturbing thoughts and images. 

Whether it’s a dream that all your teeth are falling out, or that you’re being chased down an endless street, nightmares are no fun. However, scientists are still struggling to determine what bad dreams mean and how we can overcome them once and for all. 

The good news? 

Although we may not have all the answers when it comes to nightmares, we do know a thing or two about how you can reduce your chances of suffering from them. Read through this introductory guide for tips on what nightmares mean, what might cause your bad dreams, and what you can do to overcome your late-night frights once and for all.

What Causes Nightmares

What does it mean when you have nightmares?

Let’s start with the basics: what is considered a nightmare?

There’s a difference between a bad dream and a nightmare. 

A disturbing dream may be upsetting, but it won’t necessarily wake you up at night. If a bad dream doesn’t wake you up, then it’s technically not classified as a nightmare. Bad dreams may happen frequently, but nightmares are often less frequent. 

Unfortunately there are people who experience nightmares more frequently. For about 5% of the population, these issues happen about once per week. 

So, what does it mean when you have nightmares? 

Well, from a physiological perspective, nightmares typically happen during the REM stages of sleep – often within the middle or late stages of your dreaming cycle. Because of where nightmares occur in the sleeping cycle, and their intensity, they often cause you to wake up. You may even bolt upright in bed, feeling panicked about what you felt or saw. 

A study into 10,000 dream reports found that the most common themes in these dreams included:

  • Interpersonal conflicts.
  • Physical aggression.
  • Experiences of helplessness or fear.

When your mind is caught in a nightmare, your fear levels often ramp up significantly, and your emotions are hard to control. However, at the moment, we don’t know much about the underlying cognitive reasons for nightmares. 

Some researchers believe that nightmares are one of the ways that the brain forces us to prepare for potential problems that we might experience in waking life. Other experts believe that dreams are just a response to chemical reactions in the body. It’s tough to know for sure.

What Causes Nightmares

What do nightmares mean psychologically?

While we don’t know why nightmares happen from a physiological perspective, experts believe that there are some common reasons why these issues take place from a psychological perspective. 

For most people, dreams incorporate aspects of our waking lives into the images and stories we imagine for ourselves at night. If you’re dealing with a problem at work or in your relationship, your brain is likely to bring it up when you’re sleeping. That’s because your mind attempts to come up with solutions to issues when you’re resting. 

So, what causes nightmares? From a psychological perspective, the most common answers are:

1. Stress and anxiety

Anxiety and stress are two emotions that we face in many different forms during our lives. Some forms of stress are simple enough – like worrying about work or feeling concerned about a task you need to complete. However, other sources of anxiety might be linked to major life changes, like grief, trauma, or loss. Stress related to performance is a common theme in nightmares. In one study, 15% of German athletes said that they were more likely to have bad dreams before a big event.

2. Depression

In some cases, feelings of depression and low self-esteem can also lead to more issues with nightmares. According to a report released in Finland, depression was the most significant predictor of nightmares for respondents. 28% of people with depression said that they experienced regular nightmares, compare to only 4% of people without any history of depression.

3. Trauma and PTSD

Recurring and frequent nightmares are often linked to traumatic experiences, like surviving a natural disaster or being exposed to violence in your relationships. Studies indicate that up to 96% of people with PTSD experience recurring nightmares, compared to only 3% of the general population. If you get a lot of nightmares, it could be because you haven’t dealt with an issue that you experienced earlier in life. 

What Causes Nightmares

What causes nightmares? Common conditions associated with nightmares

Psychological and mental health issues aren’t the only reasons for nightmares. 

The more scientists study nightmares, the more we learn about the brain’s response to certain stimuli, and how triggers can affect the way that we sleep. 

So, what causes a nightmare, aside from panic disorders, depression, and other common mental health issues? Some of the most common contributors might be:

1. Your environment

Research into sleeping patterns suggests that comfort levels and temperature can both affect your quality of sleep. Not only does your environment reduce your chances of falling asleep quickly and staying asleep, but it can affect the content of your dreams too. For instance, temperatures that are too hot or too cold can lead to less restful sleep and disturbing dreams. 

One study in Germany found that the scent of rotten eggs in a room was more likely to cause nightmares in participants than the smell of roses. Even the odour in your bedroom could make a massive difference to your ability to sleep well.

2. Your medication

When is the last time you read the little leaflet that comes with your medication packages? A lot of the time, you’ll notice that many medications list nightmares or sleep issues as a side effect. 

Most commonly, any substances that affect the neurotransmitters in your brain are likely to cause issues with your dreams too. Blood pressure medications, sleep aids, allergy tablets, and even steroids can cause nightmares also.

3. Your midnight snacks

If you’re hungry before its time to sleep, you’re better off eating than leaving your stomach to rumble and grumble all night. However, it’s important to be careful about what you snack on. One study from Canada found that certain foods were more likely to cause disturbing dreams for students. 

According to sleep experts, when you overeat before bed, you boost your metabolism and tell your brain to stay awake. Since the dreaming stage of sleep happens when your mind is most active, the more you dream, the more likely you are to experience bad dreams.

4. Your sleeping patterns

Nightmares are often responsible for a vicious cycle of sleeping and waking issues. When you have regular bad dreams, this causes you to sleep less. However, when you don’t sleep as much as you need to, this also increases your chances of nightmares. 

One study from the American Academy of Sleep Medicine found that 17.1% of people with frequent insomnia often suffered from recurring nightmares. The brain can quickly become more overactive when you’re not getting adequate REM, which heightens the number of bad dreams you have.

5. Your breathing

When it comes to understanding what causes nightmares, it’s worth noting that regular bad dreams can sometimes be a sign of something more significant happening when you sleep. If you’re getting enough sleep, but you’re unable to sleep restfully because of problems like sleep apnea, then you could have a higher risk of nightmares. 

One study of sleep apnea patients published in the Sleep Medicine Journal found that patients suffering from recurring nightmares also had a higher likelihood of apnea attacks during the REM cycle. 91% of people who underwent treatment for sleep apnea in this study reported fewer nightmares as a result. 

What Causes Nightmares

How to get back to sleep after a nightmare

Nightmares are horrible for many reasons. 

Depending on what you dream about, you could be left feeling terrified, overwhelmed, or just plain sad when you wake up. However, one of the biggest issues with bad dreams is figuring out how to sleep after a nightmare wakes you up. 

Here are some of the quick and simple things you can do to boost your chances of restful sleep after you’ve been disturbed by a nightmare:

  • Have a glass of water: After a dream, you may wake up feeling sweaty and exhausted. To reduce your risks of dehydration, get up, and grab a drink of water. This will stretch your body out, to improve your chances of comfort when you get back to bed, and it will refresh your system too. 
  • Listen to music or read: It’s not easy to fall right back to sleep after a nightmare. Try calming your mind by reading a book in low light or listening to some music that makes you feel calmer. This will help to soothe your mind and body again. 
  • Change your clothes: Some people who suffer from recurring nightmares sweat through their clothes when they’re having bad dreams. Change whatever you’re wearing, so you don’t have anything uncomfortable to keep you awake after your night terror. 
  • Write down what you dreamt about: Writing down your dreams can help you to compartmentalize them. It also gives you an opportunity to see how ridiculous your dream was, so you can more easily fall back to sleep. 
  • Ignore the clock: When you’re already suffering from nightmares, the last thing you want to do is give yourself sleep anxiety because you’re worried about not getting enough sleep. Ignore the clock and avoid thinking about how long you have before you have to get up for work or other commitments. 
What Causes Nightmares

What do recurring nightmares mean?

Sometimes, nightmares turn up out of the blue to ruin your evening. 

You may not know what triggered your nightmare, as nothing was worrying you before you went to sleep. In other circumstances, however, dreams can happen, again and again, showing the same images, perhaps in the same sequence, or different formats. 

So, what do recurring nightmares mean?

Often, a repetitive nightmare is a sign that there’s an issue you haven’t dealt within your life. The dream that you have can provide hints into what’s bothering you. For instance:

1. Dreams about death

Dreams about death are widespread during difficult parts of your life. You might think that dreaming about dying, or other people’s death is a sign that you’re worried about your own safety. However, most often, death-based dreams are just a sign that you’re concerned about a significant change happening in your life. These dreams may also indicate that you’re processing the grief of losing a loved one.

2. Dreams about your teeth falling out

If you’ve ever had a dream about your teeth dropping out, then you’re not alone. A shockingly large amount of people have this nightmare. Most of the research for this kind of dream suggests that it’s related to some type of underlying insecurity. For instance, maybe you feel as though you’re not doing as well as you should be at work? These dreams can also represent insecurities about your appearance.

3. Dreams about your relationship ending

If you’re in a happy relationship, but you’re continually having nightmares about your partner leaving you, then this could be another sign that you don’t feel secure. You may even feel as though you’re not good enough for your partner. If you’re concerned about not being good enough for someone, then the best thing you can do is work on your own self-esteem. If you’re not in a relationship and you’re still dreaming about someone leaving you, this could be a sign that you’re nervous about never being able to meet the right person.

4. Dreams about being trapped

The fear of being trapped is very common. Sometimes, this phobia also makes its way into the dream world. Nightmares, where you’re physically trapped, could indicate that you feel mentally restricted in some way. You may feel as though you’re stuck at a terrible job, or that you’re hemmed in by debt. You could even be worried that you’re trapped in a loveless relationship. Whatever you feel stuck about, the best way to overcome your nightmare is to find a way to escape in reality.

5. Dreams about falling

One of the most commonly reported “good” dreams is when you imagine yourself flying. On the other hand, a collective nightmare involves falling from a huge height. Usually, the source of this nightmare is a feeling of anxiety you have in your current life. Falling can be a sign that you’re nervous about being out of control. You may even be worried that you don’t have enough security in your work life or relationship. Again, the solution here is to take steps in your waking life to overcome your anxieties. 

What Causes Nightmares

How do I stop having nightmares?

More often than not, the best way to stop having nightmares, is to figure out what’s causing your bad dreams and respond to the issue. If you’re always having dreams that are related to work, then the best thing you can do is change your job or look for a way to enjoy your career more. If you’re unhappy in your relationship, then ending that relationship (though upsetting at first), could help you to sleep more soundly in the future. 

Today’s scientists are still experimenting with the concept of controlling nightmares and what people can do to affect their sleeping patterns. However, there are a few basic things you can do to reduce your chances of having bad dreams in any situation. 

1. Start with good sleep hygiene

You may never be able to prevent bad dreams completely, but you can set the stage for a great night’s sleep. Sleep hygiene strategies mean creating an environment that’s conducive to positive rest. Keeping temperatures low is a good start, as this will stop you from tossing and turning through the night or staying in REM stage sleep for too long. You can also reduce your exposure to other sources of distraction by investing in blackout curtains, getting rid of clocks, and banishing additional sources of noise. 

Another great way to ensure better sleep hygiene is to make sure that you stick to a regular sleeping and waking routine. Get up at the same time every day and go to bed at the same time – even if it’s the weekend.

2. Talk through your worries

If you know that there are sources of stress in your life that may be contributing to your nightmares, then one of the best things you can do is talk through your concerns. Speaking to a therapist is a great option, as many professionals will be able to offer advice on how you can manage your emotions more effectively. However, you don’t need to talk to a therapist if you don’t want to, speaking to your friends or family members can help too. 

Some doctors even recommend specific psychological treatments for nightmares, like Image Rehearsal Therapy. This is a form of cognitive behavioural therapy that asks you to recall the nightmare, and then come up with new, more positive alternatives to the dream.

3. Deal with your daytime stressors

If the things that are causing your feelings of fear and anxiety are something that you can address, then dealing with daytime stressors can be a great way to banish nightmares. Think about what kind of things you have control over in your life. For instance, if you’re not happy in your relationship, then you do have the power to end it – even if it feels uncomfortable at first. At the same time, you can always switch to a different job if you hate your current career. 

If you don’t have any significant sources of stress in your life, but you have trouble managing your anxiety, look for ways to add more relaxation into your schedule. Have a nice cup of tea before bedtime, while listening to your favourite music. Try a hot bath and avoid exposing yourself to any upsetting or suspenseful television shows before bed.

4. Be careful about what you eat and drink

As mentioned above, the food you have before bed can increase your chances of nightmares. Look for foods that are useful for a good night’s sleep, such as walnuts, or white rice, and avoid eating anything that could harm your ability to sleep. For instance, cheese and other foods can take a long time to digest, which keeps your body in a more “wakeful” state for longer.

The more time you spend in active states when you’re sleeping, the more REM dreaming you’re going to do, which increases your risk of nightmares. Remember, if you have trouble with nightmares, avoid alcohol at all costs too. Alcohol suppresses REM through most of the night, then force your body to catch up in a sprint at the end of the evening, which boosts your risk of scary dreams. 

What Causes Nightmares

Dealing with consistent nightmares

We all have bad dreams from time-to-time. 

However, sometimes, nightmares can become a lot more than just an occasional disruption in your sleep cycle. Some people feel so nervous about their nightmares, that they start to suffer from sleep anxiety or fear of sleep. 

There are people around the world who also suffer from nightmare disorder – a recognized condition where you frequently experience recurring bad dreams that disrupt your sleep, cause anxiety, and affect your daily behaviour. 

If your nightmares are more than just an occasional concern and they’re actively harming your quality of life, then you might want to speak to a doctor or psychologist. These professionals will be able to find out if there are any underlying conditions that could be causing your terrors. 

For more advice on dreams and nightmares, don’t forget to stay tuned here at siestio.com too!

Siestio. Sleep Matters.

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