Everyone knows what it’s like to be jolted awake by a particularly scary dream. While it’s easy to blame it on your last viewing of “The Shining” or some other terrifying film, the true culprits of our nightmares are the seemingly mundane activities we do every day.
Nightmares are different from regular not-so-great dreams because they wake us up suddenly, often during the early hours when we’re well into our rapid eye movement sleep. Nightmares are also not to be confused with night terrors, which typically happen soon after we fall asleep, and which feel very real ― so waking up feels even more terrifying.
Nightmares are more common among children than adults, but that doesn’t mean adults don’t experience them. An estimated 50 percent of adults have occasional nightmares, according to psychology experts. Women have them more frequently than men.
“In general, nightmares aren’t a threat to sleep quality or health,” said Ginger Houghton, a licensed clinical social worker and owner of Bright Spot Counseling in Michigan. “However, if the nightmares are consistent and severe enough that a person struggles at work, home or school or if they want to avoid sleep, it’s time to find a board-certified sleep medicine doctor.”
“If the nightmares are consistent and severe enough that a person struggles at work, home or school or if they want to avoid sleep, it’s time to find a board-certified sleep medicine doctor.”
– Ginger Houghton, licensed clinical social worker
Chances are good this doesn’t describe you: Only about 1 percent of adults have nightmares frequent enough that they need to seek professional help. But that doesn’t mean you should just brush off your bad dream. Dina Merhbi, a registered dietitian in Montreal and founder of the Body Balance Method, said that even one nightmare can increase your fatigue, which may lead to unhealthy habits the next day.
“Sleep is a time for the body to relax and reboot for the next day,” Merhbi said. “However, nightmares cause a high anxiety state that actually prevents the body from relaxing, and will cause changes in the next day like increased fatigue, heightened senses, [and] increased caffeine and sugar intake.”
“In the long term,” she said, “with recurrent nightmares, this will impact the energy and mental health of the person and might become a catalyst for depression, anxiety and even health issues such as glucose intolerance and high blood pressure.”
And while the link is not fully understood, experts have found a connection between frequent nightmares and mental health problems. Studies have found that people experiencing regular nightmares are at a higher risk of self-harm and suicide.
So how do you get control over your nightmares? One way is to look at what could be contributing to them. Below are a few things that could be adding to the problem, according to experts:
You’re dealing with mental health problems.
According to John Mayer, a clinical psychologist practicing in Chicago, negative thinking and unresolved issues play a huge role in determining what kind of nightmares, and how many of them, you might have.
“Our brains work like a computer; what goes in equals what comes out,” Mayer said. “So, if you go to bed with negative thoughts or you’re replaying negatives from your day, boom! Your brain is going to be loaded with negative thoughts to recycle while you sleep.”
One Finnish study found that people who have severe depression or even just a negative self-attitude were likely to have more nightmares. In fact, 28 percent of their participants who had severe depression also reported having frequent nightmares.
While depression is definitely a factor, general stress from everyday life can also have a significant impact on bad dreams and sleep quality. Common circumstances, such as moving, having an upcoming test or changing roles at work, can trigger a nightmare. Grief and other serious issues can also increase your risk.
“Stress, unresolved conflicts and personal tragedies all contribute toward generating nightmares,” said Damian Sendler, a clinician who specializes in treating patients with psychological and psychiatric conditions in New York. “Nightmares are — in a way — the pimples of our imagination. Just as with pimples that show up after there is an excessive accumulation of dirt and bacteria in the skin, nightmares are the byproduct of the mind corrupted by troubles and worries.”
You have certain personality traits.
Some research has indicated that character traits may contribute to bad dreams. A 2001 study looked at people who were experiencing around two nightmares a month and found that those who are more sensitive are more likely to have frequent bad dreams. Another study discovered that people with artistic and creative interests are also more likely to experience nightmares on a regular basis.
Austrian-American psychoanalyst and sleep researcher Ernest Hartmann found that people with thinner personality boundaries — those who are open-minded, sensitive and creative — are more likely to have longer, vivid, detailed and emotional dreams. And that dream content usually “showed a trend towards correlation with aggressive interaction and nightmare-likeness.”
You’re processing a trauma.
According to a 2015 study, nightmares are a major symptom of post-traumatic stress disorder. This can make it difficult to fall asleep again, which can in turn make the whole next day more challenging.
“Some people wake with a sad or scared feeling after nightmares, which can be a difficult start to the day,” said Alex Dimitriu, a physician and founder of Menlo Park Psychiatry & Sleep Medicine. “If this occurs rarely, it is quite normal. However, regular frequent nightmares can be a sign of either some repressed memory, trauma, or possibly sleep apnea or sleep disturbance.”
“People with PTSD are most commonly known to experience recurring nightmares, often around the traumatic event,” Dimitriu said. “In these instances, we always advise seeking professional help.”
You ate before bed.
It’s pretty well understood that late-night snacking isn’t the best thing for your health, but you might not realize it could be the source of your nightmares. Eating a big meal, or even just a snack, increases your metabolism and body temperature. This causes your brain to be more active, and thus could lead to more nightmares.
A 2015 study by the University of Montreal found that 9.5 percent of people had bad dreams after indulging in a late-night meal. Another 2015 study surveyed almost 400 students and had them keep a record of their dreams, and of what they ate, for two weeks. About 44 percent of people reported that ice cream and other dairy products caused bizarre and disturbing dreams. And there’s even some evidence to suggest spicy foods can lead to nightmares.
You had a nightcap.
While drinking alcohol might initially help you fall asleep, your night is going to be anything but restful. At some point, the alcohol metabolizes and the sedative effect wears off, creating fragmented sleep and nightmares, according to the Cleveland Clinic. And thanks to that vodka tonic, your dreams and nightmares will be way more vivid than usual. There’s even a chance you’ll “act out” your dreams or sleepwalk.
Your medication is messing with your sleep.
Certain drugs may also affect nightmares. According to the Mayo Clinic, blood pressure medications, antidepressants, antihistamines (found in sleep aids and allergy medicines) and steroids are some of the typical offenders. Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and cholesterol-lowering medications can also contribute to disturbed sleep and bad dreams.
If you’re in the 1 to 5 percent of people who take these medications and have nightmares ― and it’s affecting your quality of life ― check in with your doctor.
How can you prevent nightmares?
In addition to treating any mental health issues, watching your eating habits before bed and talking to your doctor about medication intake, there are a few things you can do to make sure you get a good nightmare-free sleep. Healthy lifestyle habits like meditation, therapy, exercise and journaling can help improve sleep, which in turn may help with your nightmares.
Alex Tran, a wellness expert and yoga teacher in California, said that meditation helped her clear negative thought patterns from her abusive childhood that she believed were contributing to her frequent nightmares.
“I grew up having nightmares two to three times a week,” she said. “I found yoga in my early 20s, and the physical practice introduced me to the meditative practice. This has allowed me to clear my thoughts while drifting into sleep, get rid of my nightmares and enjoy a peaceful sleep.”
Because nightmares can sometimes be a sign of an unresolved issue or conflict in your life, Dara Bushman, a licensed clinical psychologist practicing in South Florida, said acknowledging the problem before you fall asleep could also help with prevention.
“Frequent nightmares are often the result of the mind processing a prior event,” she said. “The mind does not respond to ‘don’t’ think of something. In fact, when you drive by a car accident, and someone tells you not to look, the first thing someone does is look. You can prevent nightmares by thinking of the uncomfortable stimulus.”
Dream expert and author Lauri Loewenberg suggests that nightmares are not something to be feared. Rather, they’re a tool to help you manage and assess your overall well-being.
“The occasional nightmare may keep you from being able to fall back asleep and have you a bit upset the following day but is typically not harmful,” she said. “In fact, it can be very good for you because it is the subconscious alerting you to something that is wrong in your life [like] a difficult, ignored or mishandled issue that needs attention and correction.”
So next time you find yourself jolted awake after being chased by a monster in your sleep, ask yourself what that monster might represent. It could be the first step to put it — and the rest of your nightmares — away for good.
If you or someone you know needs help, call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. You can also text HOME to 741-741 for free, 24-hour support from the Crisis Text Line. Outside of the U.S., please visit the International Association for Suicide Prevention for a database of resources.