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Nightmare – Signs, Causes, Types, and Treatment

Nightmare – Signs, Causes, Types, and Treatment

Updated on Dec 28, 2022 | Published on Jul 17, 2021

Reviewed by Dr. Nereida Gonzalez-Berrios, MD , Certified Psychiatrist

Nightmare – Signs, Causes, Types, and Treatment

Have you ever felt suffocated and petrified after waking up from a dream? Was it upsetting, uncanny and brought feelings of terror and dread? The dream felt real and lifelike. Right? 

Do not get distraught since it was a nightmare that turned your peaceful sleep to a state of extreme chaos.

These frightening and scary dreams can cause mental discomfort and are associated with negative and intense emotions such as fear, worries, and hopelessness. 

You may be baffled and do not know how to deal with it.

In this article, we will discuss in detail the various signs, causes, types, and coping strategies for nightmares.

Read on and be informed about these common negative dreams that can cause jerks and jitters and eventually wake you up from a deep sleep.

Nightmare – Definition, Signs & Causes
Nightmare – Definition, Signs & Causes
Nightmare – Effects and Ways to Stops Nightmares
Nightmare – Effects and Ways to Stops Nightmares

Nightmare Definition (Nightmare Meaning)

A nightmare is a terrifying, scary, and shocking negative dream that induces fear and alarm. It’s spine-chilling, unpleasant, and disturbing. It occurs during REM (Rapid eye movement) sleep. It is emotionally high with a lot of fear, disgust, frustration, and anxiety associated with it.

A nightmare is a type of bad dream that is intense and wakes up the dreamer from deep sleep. The content of the dream is extremely uncomfortable and causes physical discomfort and psychological terror and panic.

The nightmare wakes you up in fear and distress and you may not be able to sleep for some time. It can induce dread and can remain in the conscious thought for a long time.

The word ‘nightmare’ is derived from old English folklore stories where ‘mare’ means a malicious entity or a mythological demon, a female evil spirit who sits on one’s chest while sleeping and torments them with negative images of fear and dread. 

According to Dictionary.Com, “Nightmare is a terrifying dream in which the dreamer experiences feelings of helplessness, extreme anxiety, sorrow, etc. A horrifying and scary scene can oppress you in a dream and that’s exactly what a nightmare is.

A nightmare is a vivid dream that is emotionally intense and thus they are easily recalled. It usually occurs during a REM (Rapid eye movement) sleep stage and interrupts your sleep schedule significantly. It leaves you in an awakened state of emotional distress and suffering.

If you are having an occasional nightmare, it’s nothing to worry about but if it is a regular pattern and torments you emotionally, then you need to look into it seriously. 

Psychologists believe that nightmares are a way to process negative emotions that arise out of unresolved conflicts and deepest fears of our unconscious mind. 

The fearful element present in such dream themes are actual manifestations of waking life.

Though nightmares are bad dreams, there is a difference between the two. A bad dream is an emotionally overwhelming negative dream that is upsetting and bizarre but it may not wake you up. 

However a nightmare is more than a bad dream. It wakes up the dreamer and leaves him/her with extreme emotional upsurge and uncomfortable physical symptoms such as a racing heart and sweating.

Nightmares signs and symptoms

Nightmares are frightening, weird, and disturbing stories that our subconscious mind creates while we sleep. 

It usually occurs in the second half of night when the REM sleep stage is quite vivid and intense. These bad dreams has the following signs and symptoms:

  • Your dream is upsetting, scary, and bizarre with fearful images.
  • As you wake up and the dream unfolds, you may seem to be more fearful, worried, disgusted, and grief-stricken.
  • Your dream wakes you up in a pool of sweat with a pounding heart.
  • A sense of confusion and helplessness about what you just saw after waking up.
  • You are able to recall the details of the dream.
  • The dream caused excessive stress and it doesn’t allow you to fall asleep again.
  • Nightmares have some common emotions attached to it such as fear, anxiety, guilt, resentments, shame, and sadness.
  • The dream narratives involve threats to your survival, physical and emotional security, and overall mental health.
  • Nightmares can cause frequent nocturnal awakening beyond the control of the dreamer.
  • These bad dreams occur more commonly among children in their early and late childhood from 4 to 7 years. However adult nightmares are also common and widely reported in the general population.
  • These are visual images that are terrifying and involve episodes of trauma and fear associated with real life events and experiences.

What causes nightmares?

Nightmares are associated with a host of psychiatric illnesses such as severe depression, schizophrenia, dissociative disorders, and generalized anxiety disorders. Apart from these conditions, you can also have a nightmare due to certain stressful conditions of waking life.

Several pieces of research done on nightmares have shown that these bad dreams are caused due to your subconscious mind trying to regulate your negative experiences, memories, emotions attached with waking life.

The scary images in nightmares are actually a reflection of hidden anxieties and unprocessed negative emotions. 

Maybe these unprocessed emotions are related to some past hurts that remained bottled up in the unconscious mind for a long time and just shows up in dreams.

The factors that play a vital role in causing a nightmare can be enumerated as:

  • Scary and terrifying movies, dreadful story books, weird video games
  • Illness and high fever
  • Stress triggers of daily life
  • Alcohol and substance abuse
  • Psychiatric medications
  • Over the counter sleep aids and their sudden withdrawal
  • Depression
  • Sleep apnea
  • Post-traumatic events and their effects
  • Narcolepsy
  • Sleep deprivation
  • Past trauma that was not worked out well
  • Major life change
  • Binge eating and unhealthy lifestyle
  • Chronic body pain

Let us now discuss some of these reasons in detail.

1. Scary and terrifying movies, dreadful story books, weird video games

If you binge watch a horror story or a murder thriller, or read a story will scary plots too often, then you may get nightmares that are emotionally draining and jittery. Several studies have directly linked that scary movie plots and TV series cause nightmares.

The person may go to sleep with an unconscious fear and the sleeping brain can make up frightening dream images surrounding that core fear. 

Reading a scary story book usually causes nightmares in children especially if they are reading it before going to bed. 

Our sleeping mind can make mysterious stories that are fearful and intense and the person can see a vivid dream and even recall the dream narrative clearly.

2. Illness and high fever

Sometimes illness, body fatigue and fever can cause freaked out dreams. These dreams are crazy and make you wonder why you saw such a scary image after all. Fever dreams are vivid and intense in nature.

The dream content is disturbing and the sleeping person wakes up from the dream instantly with a lot of sweating, racing heart, fear, and bewilderment. Fever raises the body temperature and the thermoregulation of the body gets affected.

Fever causes disturbing dream visions and hallucinations after waking up. These are synonymous with nightmares and night terrors that are easier to recall because of their vividness.

3. Stress triggers of daily life

Sometimes a nightmare is caused by problems of daily life such as issues at the workplace, relationship problems with family, friends, or partners, or improper work-life balance. 

These stress triggers cause anxiety and worries that are hard to cope with and affect mental health.

Scientific studies on dreams have proved that stress causes a spiral of negative thoughts and anticipatory anxiety that is hard to get rid of. The problems of waking life are carried to the dream world. 

People suffering from chronic anxiety are more likely to get occasional nightmares because of fragmented sleep and emotional restlessness.

Stress brings despair, sadness, and a general feeling of disgust that further increases the likelihood of getting bad dreams.

4. Alcohol and substance abuse

People who regularly consume alcohol or are dependent on some drug are found to have more nightmares than others. 

This is because prolonged alcohol intake can trigger signs of anxiety, sadness, loneliness, and despair. The person may consume the drug to feel better momentarily but in the long run it causes sleep deprivation, frequent night time waking that may cause nightmares.

Alcohol reduces the ability to focus well in daily life and thus negative thoughts and emotions, faulty beliefs, wrong perspectives get manifested in the dream state. 

The conflicts of daily life that were not resolved in waking life may seem to bother in the subconscious state causing nightmares.

A regular dose of alcohol can also induce lucid dreams where you may feel like half asleep and half awake. It can cause conscious and intense dreams that continue for a long time.

Moreover the withdrawal symptoms of alcohol also induce sleep disturbances and cause frequent nightmares.

5. Psychiatric illness and underlying mental health problems

Frequent nightmares are caused by chronic psychiatric illnesses such as panic disorder, generalized anxiety, severe depression, and psychosis. People suffering from such illnesses usually have poor cognitive skills and lower levels of emotional control.

They are unable to cope up with everyday stress and may get anxious and restless with slightest triggers. This makes them sleep less with multiple waking, causing bad dreams.

Adults suffering from severe and chronic depression are known to suffer from recurring nightmares because of insomnia. Since they have difficulty in falling asleep and staying asleep throughout the night, their dream narratives are full of pain and suffering.

Depression may lead to profound sadness and they are the strongest triggers for nightmare and night terrors.

6. Trauma that has not been resolved well

Nightmares are caused due to past trauma that left deep scars in the unconscious mind. People suffering from PTSD (Post traumatic stress disorder) have reported reliving the trauma scenes in their dream narratives. 

The fear and anxiety associated with such scary dream themes highlight hidden sadness, helplessness, remorse, and guilt of waking life. Moreover trauma survivors of some accidents, civil war or natural calamities may also visualize frequent nightmares because of the unresolved pain and agony associated with the situation.

Research findings back this hypothesis by concluding that trauma victims are unable to accept and process the negative emotions attached with the situation and it just gets manifested through nightmares.

7. Sleep deprivation

Chronic nightmares are caused due to inadequate and irregular sleep. This lack of sleep or sleep deprivation may be caused by excessive worries, negative thoughts, unresolved conflicts, irrational fears of waking life that do not allow the person to sleep well. 

It can also lead to frequent waking throughout the night and once awake the person will not be able to sleep again. The American Academy of Sleep Medicine has shown in its research findings that people who suffer from frequent insomnia have more nightmares than the control subjects.

Irregular sleep patterns are related to shorter REM sleep, it means that the person will visualize more intense and fearful scenes in a short period of time.

8. Major life changes

Any major life change such as a new job, marriage, childbirth, moving to a new city may cause overwhelming emotions. 

If the emotions are not processed in real life, it may show up as scary dreams at night.

If you are living with a fair share of anxiety due to unemployment or going through some relationship issues such as a breakup, it may cause recurring nightmares. 

Your trauma-ridden ‘self’ is stuck in despair and fear and these emotions are reflected in bad dreams.

Study findings have found that life changes trigger stress because the person has to make alterations and adjustments to fit well with the new change and may find it difficult to cope up with. 

9. Binge eating and unhealthy lifestyle

Research studies have shown that food habits, mid-night cravings, consumption of oily and junk food before going to bed are related to bizarre and freaky dreams. 

When you eat heavily before going to bed, it boosts the body metabolism and activates brain functioning as well. 

Moreover it has been found that eating lactose based food such as dairy products, cheese, milk can cause indigestion and heartburn causing sleeplessness. 

This again correlates with bad dreams because science has proved that lactose intolerance can cause vivid and crazy dreams that are hard to process and accept in reality.

Several unhealthy lifestyles like long waking hours, late night work or studying, partying at night, use of alcohol can cause sleep deprivation and may cause frequent nightmares.

10. Chronic pain

Patients with chronic back pain and burn sufferers found their dream narratives to be bizarre and frightening.  Most of the dream contents were found to be related with their waking life pains and sufferings.

A study conducted by Sleep Research society (2002) have found that burn victims have associated their dream content with the real life pain sensations that they were suffering.

Another study published in the Open Pain Journal reported that patients suffering from chronic back pain had recurring nightmares of various pain sensations than people who do not suffer from backaches. 

Any physical discomfort can make you feel restless and irritated; thereby causing intense and vivid nightmares. 

In these dream themes, the content reflects the agony and sufferings of the dreamer. It actually symbolizes real life physical pain that is hard to cope with.

Recurring nightmares – Are they harmful?

Recurring nightmares are continuous episodes of bad and unpleasant dreams that are emotionally overwhelming and get difficult to be processed and accepted in reality. These dream narratives get repeated over and over again for a long period of time.

Recurring nightmares are terrifying experiences because of the intense emotions associated with it. Such dream themes usually relate to being chased, kidnapped in a dream, or getting killed by someone. Sometimes dreams about dead people, car accidents also appear as a recurring nightmare.

In recurring nightmares, the dream content almost remains the same every night. You may see the same people, images, and location in the dream. 

It could be the scenes of the same danger every night. For example: Seeing yourself falling from a cliff, building, or some higher elevation every night. 

Maybe the dream signifies that certain aspects of your waking life are falling apart and you are losing control and grip over them.

In most cases, recurring nightmares are caused due to some unresolved psychological conflicts that were never worked out in real life and as such it’s showing up in dreams.

The common emotions attached with such recurring nightmares are fear, disgust, anger, sadness, guilt, despair, and confusion.

There are a few potential causes related to recurring nightmares and they are as such:

  • Unmet needs and unresolved conflicts of waking life
  • Medication and drug abuse
  • Prolonged sleep deprivation
  • Psychiatric illnesses such as bipolar disorder, Post traumatic stress disorder, dissociative disorders, etc.
  • Migraine
  • Sleep apnea

The person usually wakes up from a recurring nightmare startled and fearful because the content mainly comprises fearful scenarios such as physical abuse, being tortured by someone, failures, unfortunate happenings such as death of a loved one and much more.

People suffering from PTSD usually suffer from recurring nightmares where they go through the same trauma images and experiences of waking life. In short, the dream images are disturbing and cause extreme distress and discomfort after waking up.

People suffering from anticipatory anxiety usually get catastrophic images in dreams which signifies their innate fears and insecurities of waking life. The dream images consist of failure and fear about certain things that may not have happened in waking life. 

Few of the common recurring nightmare themes related to anxiety are fear of public speaking, being bullied, and fear of performing in an examination. 

Recurring nightmares are not only disturbing but are easily remembered and the person can wake up abruptly with a lot of fear to deal with. These dreams are harmful if it’s frequent and disturbs the mental health of the person. 

The situation needs to be treated through medication and therapy to reduce its occurrence and make the person feel better.

Nightmares vs night terrors

A question that hovers our mind quite often is, whether nightmares are the same as night terror or they are different in certain typical ways. Simply speaking nightmare and night terror are not the same.

A nightmare is an unpleasant and frightening dream that usually occurs during rapid eye movement sleep (REM sleep) and causes emotional distress and psychological discomfort to the dreamer.

Sometimes night terrors are also known as sleep terrors, is a kind of arousal disorder that occurs during NREM (non-rapid eye movement sleep) and is marked by panic symptoms of screaming, shouting, kicking, and flailing. 

This condition is a kind of parasomnia and usually occurs in the first 3 to 4 hours after falling asleep. Night terrors are characterized by some physical symptoms such as 

  • faster breathing
  • screams and shouts
  • rapid heart rate
  • flushing of skin
  • excessive sweating
  • muscle tension
  • dilation of pupil
  • either sitting up in the bed or sleep walking
  • totally unaware of the dream content

Night terror episodes are common amongst children and cause extreme fear. When the child gets up from sleep, they look afraid and the episode can continue for 10 to 15 minutes. After that the child may fall asleep again in a deepest sleep state and may not remember their terror episode at all.

The frequency of night terrors are much more in children than in adolescents and adults. Study findings have shown that children between the age group of 4 to 12 years are more prone to night terrors.

The major differences between nightmare and night terror are as follows:

NightmareNight Terror
Nightmares occur during REM sleep stage when the sleeping mind is active and alert just like a wakeful stateNight terror occurs during NREM (Non-REM) stage when the sleeping has less brain activity
It usually occurs from mid to late night or often towards the morningIt occurs in the early stage of sleep, usually in the first one-third of the night
The person can remember the nightmare and can recall it in detail after waking upThe person do not remember the episode and there is no recall at all
Nightmares do not cause any body movements or very slight movement when it happensNight terror causes extreme motor activity like kicking, moving of the hands, and other body movements signifying the discomfort the child is going through
Nightmares are marked by subdued verbalizations.Night terrors are marked by verbalizations such as screaming, shouting, etc.
In nightmares, the dreamer is easy to arouse and remains responsive to the environment after waking upNight terrors are unresponsive states where though the child looks to be in a wakeful state, they are in terrible fear and thus remain unresponsive to the environment. They are also difficult to arouse
The person doesn’t want to go back to sleep again because of the fear of seeing another bad dreamThe adult or child quickly goes back to sleep
Nightmares occur during times of stress, life changes, psychiatric illness, medication, or substance abuseNight terrors are found to be hereditary and run in families or it is caused to overtiredness.
It may require comforting by parents or family membersIn night terrors, the episode continues for 5 to 10 minutes and comforting doesn’t help the child much. The symptoms get worse before the child falls asleep again
Nightmares are vivid images of different actions going on in the dreamNight terrors are associated with panic symptoms and it is difficult to know the exact dream content because the person can hardly describe the dream theme
In nightmares, the person appears scared and fearfulIn night terrors, the adult or child appears confused, disoriented, and not in full consciousness
Nightmare frequency is almost similar in all age groupsNight terrors are more common in children but sometimes adults may also get affected

Nightmares in children

In children, nightmares manifest themselves in scary and frightening episodes. The child gets up from a shallow sleep and starts crying or appears to be under extreme fear and anxiety. 

For children, nightmares appear real to them because they can verbalize what they have seen very clearly. 

Some children resist going back to sleep again because of the fear of seeing another bad dream. The child appears nervous, helpless, and may cry inconsolably. 

Research studies done on nightmares in children have found that it is caused by disruptive family functioning where parents are less considerate and more fault finding by nature. 

The child is brought up in a fearful situation of abuse and maltreatment. The fear that bottled up in the unconscious mind may manifest itself in nightmares.

Several other reasons for nightmares can be familial relationships, mood and attitude of the parents towards themselves or the child, etc. 

Nightmares in children are quite uncomfortable experiences. It subsides as the child grows older and learns to cope up with various stress triggers in a better way.

Children usually have nightmares about:

  • fearful animals chasing them such as dogs, tigers, or even a slithering snake
  • ghosts and demons
  • getting lost in the dark
  • imaginary fears of spiders crawling on the body
  • drowning in water
  • chasing dreams by someone unknown figures

Ways to handle nightmares in children

If your child gets up from a nightmare, it’s evident that he/she will be extremely upset and may need your comfort and emotional support. You can help them overcome their fear in the following ways:

  • You need to explain to the child that it was just a dream. Comfort him/her by a kiss or a cuddle.
  • As nightmares are the most common and life-like experiences for your child, avoid dismissing their fear. Accept and trust them and assure them by more hugs and kisses.
  • Help the child to fall asleep again by comforting them
  • Be patient with the child and explain them that you are there to help them as always
  • Listen to their dream narratives and explain them that it was a just a make belief story and not real
  • Be with your child until the fear subsides. It may take one or two days before they start behaving normally
  • Make sure that your child has a healthy lifestyle and never gets sleep deprived
  • Ensure good parenting and follow a democratic disciplinary technique at home. It makes the child confident and they can overcome a lot of their life struggles on their own.
  • Help your child relax if they see any scary movie or TV show. Allow them to verbalize and share their feelings with you.

Types of nightmares (10 common types)

We all create dream images while sleeping. Some dreams are pleasurable and worthy to be seen again, while there are a few that cause immense distress and intense emotions. They are referred to as bad dreams.

At times, these bad dreams recur and become a continuous pattern of psychological discomfort. They are simply disturbing and you would wish to know the meanings of such nightmares.

Experts pointed out that nightmares are reflections of real life fears and insecurities. It indicates the experiences we have been through in waking life. Let us understand the common types of nightmares and what they really denote about the workings of our unconscious mind.

1. Being chased 

If you suffer from dreams of being chased and it gives you jitters whenever you see it, you need to consider the social circumstances of waking life.

Lauri Loewenberg, eminent dream analyst has pointed out that people suffering from SAD (social anxiety disorder) usually fear mixing up freely in social situations because of an underlying fear of being judged or ridiculed by others. 

This unconscious fear bottles up and may manifest as a nightmare theme where you may see yourself escaping a situation and someone else is trying to get hold of you.

The constant avoidance of certain things in life makes you run away from it. Dreams of being chased are symbolic of innate fears and insecurities that makes you run away, avoid, neglect, escape from real life situations that appear threatening and stressful.

2. Teeth falling out in dreams

This is a bad dream that can recur very frequently and can easily turn into a nightmare. The dream symbolizes your fears of how others perceive you in reality. It also denotes your concern about how you look and carry yourself in waking life.

The dream symbol suggests poor self-worth and a tendency to seek external validation from others to consider oneself as worthy and good enough. 

These nightmares are symbolic of a feeling of powerlessness, rejection, social embarrassment, looking unattractive in social circles etc.

3. Not finding a toilet around

This is indeed a freaky one. This dream symbolizes the inability to express your needs in front of others. Not finding a loo also means that you are missing out on important opportunities in life. 

The nightmare warns you of some impending danger in real life. It tells you to do your share of self-care and meet personal needs as and when it’s needed.

Your personal needs are being ignored because you are busy pleasing others and putting their needs before yours.

4. Unprepared for an examination

This nightmare may appear frequently and it appears real and lifelike. These vivid dreams foretell your real life anxieties about failure, lack of progress in life, setbacks that are hard to deal with.

This dream symbolizes poor self-confidence and deepest fears of failure and personal inadequacies. If this dream keeps coming back every now and then, you need to look into your waking life issues and correct those areas of life that seem to be at stake and may fail in future.

These recurrent nightmares indicate that you’re not ready to take up new challenges in life. You are simply losing out opportunities because of a fear of failure. You are unsure and do not know how to move to the next level in life.

5. You may seem to fall from a high

Falling dreams are vivid nightmares that go on for a long time and show up scary images of lack of control over a situation. 

The dream theme highlights fear of changes, lack of grip over a real life situation and thus it is falling apart faster than expected.

Falling nightmares are disturbing images that can perplex you soon and agonize you from deep within.

6. Your vehicle is going out of control

An out of control vehicle is a super common nightmare. This indicates that you are moving out of your way, you are off-track and moving in wrong directions in life. Sometimes it also symbolizes lack of control and inability to take charge of your daily life.

These dreams are scary and fearful because the dreamer may feel helpless and hopeless about how to move forward in life. 

As cars symbolize life’s  journey, an out of control vehicle mirrors a situation in real life that is not on track and seems to go in a different direction than expected. You are reminded to control the situation as much as possible.

7. You are being late for some destination

When you see yourself late for school, work, interview sessions or some other important event, such a dream indicates your worries and anxiety about trying out something else in life.

You are trying your best to make things happen but somehow getting delayed to accomplish the life goals in the right way. It also signifies missing out on new opportunities that can lead to personal growth and success.

8. Dream of being naked in public

A recurring nightmare of being naked in public symbolizes fear of embarrassment, inadequacy to reveal your true ‘self’ in front of others.

It also indicates uncertainty and your inability to recognize your worth and esteem. You are not confident of your public appearance and may fear being ridiculed and humiliated in public places.

Dreams about nudity are common nightmares that signify uncertainty, fear of being exposed, and wrongly understood in real life. These can make you feel shy and embarrassed after waking up.

9. Dreams about flooding/tidal waves/tsunamis

These freaky dream images are indeed frightening and can make you wake up in a pool of sweat. Lauri Loewenberg points out that water symbolizes deeper emotions that are hard to deal with. 

Dreaming of a flooded house or landscape where you are stuck may indicate emotional upheavals, lack of control over real life issues. You are confined in some real life issues that are utterly overwhelming and you do not know the way out of it.

You may feel helpless and anxious about how to control the situation in reality. Such a dream indicates lack of emotional well-being and inner peace.

10. Seeing blood all around you

This is indeed a horrible experience and no one would prefer to see such a nightmare. Right? Dreaming of blood symbolizes life force and vitality, if interpreted positively. 

But if you are anxious and indecisive in waking life due to some troubling life issue, the dream may turn out to be quite fearful and weird. Seeing blood in a dream symbolizes worries, past hurts, gloom, unresolved sufferings etc.

It also symbolizes death of loved ones, painful life experiences that were never processed well in real life and have left deep scars in the unconscious mind and eventually shows up as a disturbing nightmare.

Nightmare disorder

Nightmares are considered as disorders if it’s persistent and recurs quite often in your daily life. Dreams can make you fearful and overwhelmed. It keeps you away from a healthy sleep schedule. Several diagnostic tools are used to identify the disorder such as physical examination, detailed interview, and nocturnal sleep studies.

According to DSM-5 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition), nightmare disorder is defined as “Repeated awakenings with recollection of terrifying dreams usually involving threats to survival, safety, or physical integrity.”

Nightmare disorders are persistent forms of scary dream narratives that induce a lot of fear and emotional discomfort. It disrupts sleep schedules also. 

It involves the dreamer in dangerous situations that they try to escape from in the dream. Moreover, it causes a lot of perspiration, breathing issues, and racing heart once getting up from sleep.

Symptoms of nightmare disorders

Few of the typical signs of this disorder are:

  • Frequent occurrence of vivid and scary dreams that are upsetting and cause overwhelmed feelings.
  • It causes distress in daytime as the person may ruminate about the dream theme
  • Persistent fear of falling asleep
  • A typical bedtime anxiety that may cause sleeplessness or fragmented sleep
  • Problems with focus, attention, and memory
  • Cannot stop oneself from thinking about the dream
  • Daytime sleepiness and low energy levels
  • Fear of darkness and fear of getting back to bed

How to cope?

When you visualize an occasional nightmare, it’s not a cause of concern but if it is persistent and interferes with normal functioning during the day, it needs to be treated. Few treatment options for nightmare disorders can be:

  • Stress and anxiety treatments are given in the form of medication to treat the underlying psychiatric problem, if any
  • Cognitive behavior therapy
  • Imagery rehearsal therapy (IRT) is used to make the dreamer confront his/her deepest fears and eliminate them completely.
  • Have a relaxed bedtime routine to ensure stress free sleep
  • You can do sleep meditation to calm down and have a good night’s sleep
  • Stay away from screen before going to bed
  • Practice stress relief activities like deep breathing, and focusing on positive things in life.
  • Family members should comfort the child or adult suffering from the problem by reassurance and emotional support.

Side effects of nightmares

Nightmares can affect sleep schedule and your mental and physical health badly. It affects your overall functioning throughout the day. 

Nightmares can cause significant deterioration in your quality of life. It can have the following effects:

  • You may always feel distressed and anxious about the experience
  • Sadness and gloom
  • A hopeless feeling
  • Psychological restlessness
  • Poor quality sleep or complete sleep deprivation
  • Depression
  • High BP and heart disease
  • Constant thoughts of the nightmare in waking hours
  • Fear of getting into the bed so as to avoid having another nightmare
  • Numb feelings in hands and feat
  • Feelings of terror, embarrassment, rage, and anguish
  • Daytime sleepiness
  • Inability to concentrate on tasks that require a good focus
  • Confusion and poor working memory
  • Physical exhaustion

How to stop nightmares?

Nightmares are vivid dreams that are easy to recollect and thus it causes great distress in waking life. If you are suffering from recurring nightmares, you may want to know some coping strategies and treatment for nightmares to restore inner peace and happiness.

1. Identify the exact reason of your nightmare

If you really wish to stop your scary dreams, it is important to know the reasons behind it. Sometimes nightmares can be due to stress or anxiety associated with everyday life. But there are instances where nightmare signifies underlying mental health disorders. 

You will also have to analyze the working of the unconscious mind, whether any unresolved issues or deepest agonies are making you feel perplexed in waking life. 

When you know the causes of your recurring nightmares, you can easily do something to cope up with it or you may seek help from a certified therapist to guide you through the best treatment options.

2. Treat the underlying medical condition

If your nightmares are due to psychiatric conditions such as generalized anxiety, PTSD, severe depression, then it is important to go for therapy and treat them. Even medications can help to reduce the symptoms and stop recurring nightmares.

Moreover typical sleep disorders such as sleep apnea, narcolepsy, REM disorder, restless leg syndrome may cause sleep deprivation. 

These health problems lead to fragmented sleep and need to be treated at the earliest to reduce the occurrence of bad dreams. 

3. Mindful of what you eat before going to bed

Too much junk eating or having a heavy meal can cause stomach issues and you may not be able to sleep well. Moreover, spicy, sugary, and junk eating can boost up body metabolism and activate the brain functioning.

This leads to active and agile brain cells that characterizes a state very similar to wakefulness. It causes pronounced and long REM sleep hours and causes detailed dream themes that are worrisome and freaky.

Thus, it is advisable to control your food habits so as to keep bad dreams away. 

4. Reduce stress triggers from your daily life

As already mentioned, daily stressors can lead to intense and scary nightmares. Thus keep some time for yourself to unwind and relax throughout the day so that you can get into bed with a peaceful mind.

You can practice yoga and meditation, coupled with deep breathing exercises to alleviate stress and keep your anxiety levels at a controlled level.

Furthermore, pursuing a hobby such as knitting, painting, gardening or anything that you may wish to do can be done. It will help you to feel good from within and should be undertaken in small amounts every day to feel poised inside out.

A warm relaxing bath can help you to sleep well and eliminate bad dreams. Moreover, if you are taking some anti-anxiety drugs, antidepressants, or sleeping pills, you should talk to the doctor for proper dosage and to see whether you really need them.

It is very important to remain positive throughout the day to cope up with the stress triggers. An appropriate coping style goes a long way in processing the negative experiences of your life and reducing it in a healthy way.

5. Improve your sleep

Nightmares are caused by sleep deprivation. So you need to take some steps to improve the quality of sleep and keep your bad dreams at bay. You may follow these steps to improve the quality of sleep.

  • Keep a tidy bedroom with minimum disturbance around.
  • You can do some regular physical exercise to induce good sleep. This is helpful because exercise can make you feel tired and exhausted. You will fall asleep soon.
  • Avoid consuming alcohol, nicotine, or caffeine just before bedtime. These substances have an inhibitory effect on sleep, thus it needs to be avoided.
  • Keep away your electronic gadgets and limit your screen time before going to bed. The blue light from the mobile phone and tablets interferes with sleep hormones and leads to fragmented sleep.

6. Try out imagery rehearsal treatment

Imagery rehearsal therapy (IRT) is a type of cognitive behavior therapy that is used for patients suffering from severe anxiety and trauma symptoms. 

In this therapeutic procedure, the person is encouraged to think about an alternative ending to their nightmare.

For example: If you see yourself flying high up in the sky and feeling fearful, you may visualize that you were actually paragliding and enjoying the act.

If you dream about being late for an examination, you may end up dreaming that the examination time was postponed and it has not yet started when you reach the venue.

A fearful image of falling from a high can be concluded by a parachute opening up and helping you land safely on the ground.

7. Do not dwell on negative thoughts

Nightmares are caused by over thinking and rumination over past events. Thus it is advisable to let go of such thoughts and develop positive ways to deal with life problems.

You can encourage a pleasant dream by envisioning a pleasant thought like moving around a beach, spending quality time with friends in a café etc.

As you sleep it is important that you nurture happy thoughts that are relaxing and keep you calm and serene. This lessens the probability of getting a nightmare.

It conditions your sleeping brain to forgo bad experiences of waking life and dwell on happiness and peace.

8. Talk to someone about your bad dreams

You may talk about your nightmares to someone you trust. It could be a family member, or friend who can give you some valuable advice on how to deal with it and feel better.

When you allow your negative feelings to move out it helps in healing. You can also maintain a dream journal or a sleep diary to note down the details of the dream. Write down all the negative feelings that you may have experienced and how did you cope up with it.

It guides your next course of action and may help you to seek a professional therapy to treat the discomfort, if needed.

Dealing with recurring nightmares (Few self-help tips to overcome the problem)

Sometimes recurring nightmares may make you awry and you may not know how to deal with it. In such a situation, a few handy tips may help you sort out the issue in a better way.

  • Watch a cheerful show before going to bed. It may amuse you and improve your mood
  • Listen to a good piece of soothing music that may keep you calm and poised
  • Nurture happy thoughts and remember all the good things that have happened to you. You can even think about goal accomplishments and successes as well.
  • You can read a good story book that can calm down your negative thoughts. It could even be a love novel or a self-help guide.
  • Remind yourself that it was just a dream and you have the power to tame your mind. You can easily turn your negative thoughts to positive ones.
  • Practice mindfulness and live in the moment. Experience the ‘now’ rather than ruminating over past issues or thinking about something that is yet to happen
  • Follow a regular bed time every day, so as to get enough deep sleep without the weird visions
  • When you wake up from a bad dream, you may feel anxious and fearful. Try to calm down quickly by reassuring yourself that it’s all fine and it was just a bad dream. Now you’re awake and completely safe

Can you fall asleep again after a nightmare? How?

Yes, you can fall asleep again after a nightmare. It is not that difficult. Nightmares are indeed disturbing and once you wake up, it may get difficult to fall asleep again. 

This is because the emotionally intense scenes may replay in your mind and rob your inner peace as well. You will have to relax at this moment and try out some workable ways to fall asleep again.

Few ways to fall asleep are:

  • Calm yourself by meditation where you can focus your thoughts on some happy thoughts
  • Breathe slowly and allow your thoughts to come and go without trying to control them. Accept how you are feeling right at that moment
  • If you cannot get back to sleep within sometime after you wake up, you can distract yourself and try doing something else, such as listening to a calm music, or glancing through the pages of the story book that you are presently reading for a few minutes. It may make you feel drowsy again.
  • Stop watching the clock. It may frustrate you and you may start thinking that you are still awake and it’s almost time for dawn
  • Learn about nightmares and educate yourself. You can talk to a sleep specialist and seek tips and medical advice to cope up with the bad dreams

The video link given below shows the symptoms and causes of nightmares. Do check out

The Bottom Line

Nightmares are freaky and weird. Sometimes you may feel like a victim who is being penalized for no apparent fault of yours. But truly speaking, these are super common occurrences that can affect people of all age groups.

Remind yourself that your nightmares may not mean anything specific. It could just represent the disturbing experiences of waking life that were hidden and never processed in reality, thus surfacing in dreams.

If you feel that nightmares are too much to handle, seek professional care to identify the causes of recurring episodes of the same dream. They will guide you through a therapeutic intervention programme that may help you to eliminate these scary visions completely.

Till then, dwell on positivity and dream happily.

Over to you….