Nightmare is a frightening and scary dreams that 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.

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

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 sleep.

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. 

Signs and Symptoms of Nightmares

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.

What Causes Nightmares?

Nightmares are associated with a host of psychiatric illnesses such as severe depression, schizophrenia, dissociative disorders, and generalized anxiety disorders. 

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.

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. 

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. 

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. 

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. 

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.

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. 

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.

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. 

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. 

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. 

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.

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

Nightmares vs Night Terrors

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. 

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 up.Night 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. 

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.

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

Types of Nightmares (10 Common Types)

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.

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.

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

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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. 

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.

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. .

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. 

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
  • 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

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. 

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.

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.

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. 

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.

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.

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.

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.

The Bottom Line from ‘ThePleasantDream’

Nightmares are freaky and weird. Sometimes you may feel like a victim who is being penalized for no apparent fault of yours. 

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.