Why Do We Have Nightmares?

A nightmare

A nightmare is defined as a frightening dream – a very unpleasant experience producing a feeling of terror or anxiety. They feel intense and vivid. And can cause sleep deprivation leading to health issues such as depression, obesity, and heart disease.

Nightmares most often occur during the rapid eye movement phase – in the early hours of the morning. They can set your heart pounding from fear. And can have a significant impact on your well-being. You may wake up feeling sad, angry, or guilty.

Find out more about what causes nightmares and how to stop having nightmares here…

Possible Reasons for Nightmares

Nightmares can be triggered by a range of underlying factors and disorders. The most common causes are:

  • Stress – post-traumatic stress disorder causes chronic, recurrent nightmares – and anxiety issues are also a contributor
  • Sleep disorders – restless legs syndrome and sleep apnoea are two potential sources
  • Lack of sleep – a cycle of sleep deprivation caused by the nightmares may produce a nightmare disorder
  • Medications – some blood pressure tablets and drugs that act on brain chemicals can be associated with nightmares
  • Withdrawal from substances – including tranquillizers and alcohol may increase nightmare frequency
  • Eating before bedtime – as the brain becomes more active due to increased metabolism this is a potential cause
  • Pregnancy can trigger bizarre dreams and nightmares
  • Pain can cause an experience of pain in your dreams resulting in nightmares

Nightmares or Night Terrors?

Nightmares are different experiences to night terrors. They happen during different stages of sleep – nightmares occur during REM sleep, while night terrors generally happen in the lighter stages, or non-REM sleep. Nightmares cause you to wake immediately.

Night terrors, on the other hand, are difficult to wake up from. And can be accompanied by screaming, sleepwalking, or thrashing around in bed. Symptoms of night terrors include sweating and an increased heart rate, alongside dilated pupils and hyperventilation. They usually last for a minute or two.

When children experience night terrors they stay in a deep sleep and are unable to recall the event.

REM Sleep Behaviour Disorder (RBD)

Rapid eye movement sleep behaviour disorder is a parasomnia where dreams are acted out. Behaviours can be violent in nature and can result in injury. You may be totally unaware of these actions – and they’re often related to attack themes being chased by people or animals.

REM sleep disorder is characterised by a temporary lack of muscle paralysis and the different distinctions between states breaking down. Neurological barriers don’t function properly resulting in the acting out of dreams with violent and frightening outcomes – causing possible self-injury or harm to your bed-partner.


An abnormal and persistent fear of going to bed causes anxiety and worry about having nightmares. This lack of sleep can cause insomnia to develop which can become a threat to your well-being.

Falling man

Common Nightmare Themes

According to research there are 10 common bad dream scenes and these are:

  • 1. Being chased
  • 2. Being naked in public
  • 3. Falling
  • 4. Flying
  • 5. Being late
  • 6. Being in an out-of-control vehicle
  • 7. Teeth falling out
  • 8. Being unable to find a toilet
  • 9. Going to an exam unprepared
  • 10. Finding an unused room

Additional Helpful Research

Why do we have bad dreams? Latest surveys indicate that bad dreams may actually be helpful in moving a person on after a traumatic event. Nightmares can be a positive emotional release from reactions to experienced stress. And have the ability to process stressors.

Being haunted by disturbing incidents may be beneficial as there aren’t any associations with health problems in these cases.

More than 90% of patients suffering from RBD are male and the disorder usually starts over the age of 50. And the development of Parkinson’s disease – a neurological disorder – has been linked. Other evidence suggests that specific environmental risk factors include pesticide exposure, smoking, or a previous head injury.

Studies have found that adults with certain personality traits such as distrustfulness and emotional estrangement are more likely to experience chronic nightmares.

Woman Sleeping Comfortably

Treatments for Nightmares

How to stop bad dreams can be discussed with your doctor which can lessen the frequency. The treatments include:

  • Changing the prescription or dosage of a particular medicine
  • Addressing the underlying symptoms such as restless legs syndrome helping to alleviate the nightmares
  • Effectively reducing anxiety and depression with behavioural changes
  • Cognitive behavioural therapy recommended for PTSD where imagery rehearsal testament helps chronic sufferers change their nightmares
  • Limiting alcohol, caffeine, and nicotine which can disrupt sleep patterns
  • Hypnosis can be of benefit to decrease the frequency of the nightmares
  • Short-term taking of sleeping pills or prescription sleep aids to avoid addiction

Bedtime Routines

How to get rid of nightmares can be achieved by making some lifestyle changes. You can actually create healthy sleep habits just by improving your bedtime routine. Here are a few helpful tips:

  • Make your bedroom relaxing and tranquil – with appropriate temperature and darkness
  • Your mattress, pillows, and linens all need to be clean and comfy – practice good sleep hygiene
  • Establish a bedtime routine that starts at the same time every evening
  • Restrict the use of all electronic devices at least an hour before going to bed
  • Keep a sleep diary to record disrupted sleep times
  • Maintain the same sleep and wake times even at the weekend and during holidays
  • Avoid eating spicy food before bedtime as this can bring on heartburn and cause vivid and disturbing dreams

Sleep More

Because lack of sleep has significant health implications you may need extra support. Products to help you sleep include:

  • Headbands and apps that create sleep-friendly calm with falling asleep techniques
  • Touchpoints and anxiety relief technology
  • Meditation training devices
  • Preinstalled music tracks on accompanying apps

Lynda Ishida My job is to write but my hobby is to research the latest tech innovations, especially for health & wellness.