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What Causes Nightmares and How To Stop Them

Dream Hacks - How to Get More Positive Dreams

For some people, dreams and nightmares can feel so real, almost as if they are happening in real-time. Free-falling from the sky? Stuck in a circus full of clowns?

While some of us may experience nightmares only once in a while, around 2 - 8% of people suffer from recurring bad dreams - making the thought of bedtime an absolute nightmare. The research behind nightmares is quite interesting and, at times, somewhat mythical. There are many folk tales around the world about why we have dreams and nightmares and the meanings behind them. Ancient Egyptians believed dreams could change the future.

Historically Hawaiians have believed in ‘soul sleep,’ a dreamy state of consciousness where people communicated and maintained a relationship with ancestral guardians. Islamic beliefs about dreams interestingly separate dreams into three categories: real dreams, dreams in which you speak to yourself, and dreams in which evil spirits talk to you.

Myths aside, there are some more concrete reasons why we dream. Modern science associates conflict, trauma, illness, foods, and stress as factors that are known to induce nightmarish dreams. If you’re shivering between the bed sheets and avoiding bedtime due to frequent nightmares, there are many ways to reduce the terror and start sleeping peacefully again.

What Are Nightmares

Simply put, nightmares are bad dreams. Science is yet to come to a unanimous conclusion about exactly why we have dreams and nightmares, but it is widely accepted that 65% of all dreams, good and bad, are linked to the experiences we have during the day. When you have a sudden life change, such as a career change, relationship breakdown, illness, accident, or a traumatic experience, your dreams might feature some aspects of your real life.

Research indicates dreams can be separated into five distinct categories: normal dreams, daydreams, lucid dreams, false awakening dreams, and everyone's least favorite - nightmares. To better understand nightmares and how they are so unique from the other types of dreams, it helps to get to know the unique characteristics of all the five types of dreams and how they impact sleep.

The 5 Types Of Dreams & Nightmares

Normal dreams

Normal Dreams

These stock-standard dreams that make up the majority of dreams during REM sleep. Normal dreams don’t cause you to wake up, and you may or may not recall them when you wake up in the morning.

Daydreams

Day Dreams

You’re awake, but your mind is going on a little journey to the past, present, or future, and your imaginary thoughts completely consume your attention - that’s a daydream. Daydreaming occurs when we are conscious.

While some consider it a waste of time, it’s said to be one of the best activities to boost creativity.

Lucid dreams

Lucid Dreams

Movies like Inception have put a spotlight on the life-enhancing benefits of lucid dreaming. Have you ever felt in control of the storyline of your dream? If so, you’ve experienced a lucid dream.

Like normal dreams and nightmares, lucid dreams also occur during deep REM sleep, but the big difference is dreamers are aware that they are in a dream state. 55% of all sleepers are said to have experienced a lucid dream at least once.

False awakening dreams

False Awakening Dreams

Ever dreamt about your alarm ringing and felt the real sensation of starting your morning routine only to be woken up by your real alarm? That’s what is called a false awakening dream. It’s when you dream about real-life events in such detail that it feels like you are awake. When you're in a false awakening dream, you have no idea that what you are seeing is fake until you wake up.

Nightmares

Nightmares

Nightmares are disturbing, scary, uncomfortable, and unwelcome versions of common dreams that often disrupt sleep and make it nearly impossible to fall asleep again. It is widely accepted that nightmares are a result of unsettling experiences.

How To Stop Nightmares

Nightmares can be caused by a wide variety of factors - from watching horror movies and eating unhealthy foods, to bad breakups, and more severe circumstances such as PTSD or depression. Understanding the root cause of nightmares is the most crucial factor when you want to sleep better without constantly waking up feeling terrified.

We’ve listed some of the most common causes of nightmares and what you can do to reduce the detrimental effects of recurring bad dreams.

Stress or anxiety

When faced with stressful situations such as pressure at work, issues with a relationship, or severe anxiety, nightmares can arise and create havoc for your sleep cycle. To reduce nightmares caused by stress, meditation, exercise, healthy eating, and communicating with loved ones may help you go to bed with a clearer mind.

Also, consider a natural sleep helper such as a weighted blanket. Going to bed happy and tired can significantly reduce nightmares. For more serious cases of anxiety, it's best to consult a doctor to identify more specific factors.

Scary ‘entertainment’

The horror genre is one of the most frequent reasons why people will have a nightmare. In most cases, the nightmares that result from scary movies, books, or television shows will only occur once. If you’re susceptible to having bad dreams about characters from films and books, maybe pick another genre before bed.

Trauma

Nightmares are common symptoms of traumatic life events such as illness, injury, abuse, neglect, or loss of a loved one. Many people who experience trauma are diagnosed with PTSD. Around one in eleven American adults will experience PTSD at least once in their lifetime. Nightmares, as a result of PTSD, should be discussed with medical professionals.

Medications

Certain prescription medications like blood pressure tablets, steroids, antihistamines, and some sleep aids are reported to cause disturbing dreams. Frequent nightmares as a result of medication should always be discussed with health professionals.


Apart from the apparent disturbing distress that’s caused by dreams and nightmares, constant nightmares can be bad for your health. Constantly waking up and struggling to fall back asleep stops the body from having a consistent sleep cycle, which is essential for waking up with a rested and rejuvenated mind and body.

If nightmares are keeping you awake, always speak up about it because there are solutions that can minimize their impact upon the quality of sleep.

 

Learn more about the types of dreams we have in this infographic: The 5 Types of Dreams and Dream Hacks

 

Disclaimer. We love sleep and we want you to get the best sleep possible. But we do not provide medical advice. This blog is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical info, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on our blog.



Certified Sleep Science Coach

Written by Monica Chinsami, Certified Sleep Science Coach

Monica is a writer who is passionate about the connection between wellness and sleep. She believes sleep has the power to unlock our greatest potential for health and happiness. Topics she's covered range from well-being, to the latest trends in sleep health and bedroom aesthetics. Monica holds a BA in Journalism from Monash University and is a Certified Sleep Science Coach.