Teeth falling out? Lost in the wilderness alone? Being chased but can’t scream? Most of us can remember at least one such dream for its vividness, resulting visceral fear and lingering discomfort.
The mind’s reel of horrors never ceases to amaze, and many of these dreams can be off-putting if not downright disturbing. From feeling all too real to playing on our deepest fears, bad dreams can also make it harder to get back to sleep and lead to bedtime anxiety for children as well as adults.
In the realm of dreams and nightmares, there remains more mystery than fact. It’s an area of neuroscience and psychology that’s hard to study, since each of us experiences a unique dream world that’s inherently subjective and hard to document with reliability.
While a few hypotheses exist, little is confirmed about why we dream, what causes specific dreams, or how it all works. However, there are some interesting theories on nightmares and recent research that offers insight and potential ways to minimize their occurrence and impact. Read on to see what might influence dreams and current opinions on how to cope with the bad ones.
What Is a Nightmare?
Nightmares are defined as dreams that bring out strong feelings of fear, terror, distress or anxiety. They feel more vivid or intense than a bad dream, and nightmares are often differentiated from dreams when they cause the sleeper to actually wake up and experience intense feelings upon waking. People who awake during a nightmare are likely to remember the details of it.
While you are snoozing, your brain is pretty busy during certain times of the night. During Rapid Eye Movement sleep, brain waves exhibit activity fairly similar to waking, and your brain is consuming as much if not more energy than when you’re awake. Your eyes move rapidly (hence the name), but your muscles are in a state of paralysis. This temporary paralysis is a good thing, because during REM sleep your brain is still firing off commands in the motor cortex as you move around your dream world.
Nightmares typically occur during the REM phases of rest, showing up in the later half of your sleep. Little is known about why we dream in general, but popular theories range from managing subconscious thoughts, to sorting out memories and learned information, to purely random chemical signals. There also isn’t much information on exactly why dreams sometimes turn out to be nightmares, but it’s believed that some daytime factors can play an influential role.
Both children and adults experience nightmares and bad dreams, even though they are primarily associated with childhood. It’s estimated that 10-50% of three to six year olds experience nightmares that affect their sleep, with over 80% of seven to nine year olds occasionally experiencing bad dreams.
While children and teens may have more frequent nightmares, adults can and do still have them as well. A literature review found that 85% of adults report at least one nightmare the previous year, 8-29% have monthly nightmares, and 2-6% report weekly nightmares. Older adults are 20-50% less likely to have nightmares compared to younger adults.
Behind the Scenes: The Factors That Influence Dream Content
What was your last bad dream about? Despite our unique lives and experiences, if you asked a group of people this question, you’d likely see a few common themes. In fact, research shows we tend to share quite a bit of subject matter in nightmares.
A 2014 University of Montreal study, analyzed 253 nightmares and 431 bad dreams. They found that physical aggression was the most prevalent theme in nightmares, along with death, health and threats. Men’s nightmares were more likely to involve themes of natural disasters and war, while women showed higher frequency of interpersonal conflicts. While fear was a common emotion evoked by nightmares, a significant portion caused sadness, confusion, fear or disgust as well.
Similar themes were found in a previous German study, which identified the five most common nightmare themes as falling, being chased, being paralyzed, being late and death of family or friends.
There’s no direct proof or consensus to exactly what causes nightmares or why we have them, but things like our relationships, daytime activities, certain medications and traumatic events all have important links.
For most people, dreams tend to incorporate aspects of our waking lives in both literal and abstract ways. For example, your dreams may include things like studying, test-taking, a problem you’re dealing with, working, family, or a repetitive action you do during the day. Negative things like stress, fear, worry, arguments, and other aspects of our days could also show up in nightmares.
The most common timeframes for dreams to incorporate episodic events and experiences is after one to two days or five to seven days. Dreams also commonly involve past autobiographical experiences, our personal experiences, and long-term memories of the self. Research shows these memories are typically experienced selectively and in a fragmented fashion
Anxiety and Stress
Stress and anxiety can come in many forms, from temporary everyday things like moving to a new place, changing roles at school or work, or failing at a task, to more major things like divorce, losing a family member, trauma, or anxiety disorders. Being stressed and feeling anxiety is associated with poor sleep in general, and both may also trigger a nightmare.
Anxiety regarding performance is one a common theme you may have recognized in your own dreams. For example, about 15% of German athletes in one study reported distressing dreams before a big event, most often involving athletic failure. Many students also experience bad dreams related to impending tests or finals, sometimes even years after they’ve finished school.
The idea that scary, thrilling, or suspenseful shows or even fear-inducing news broadcasts cause bad dreams is often expressed anecdotally. While difficult to study, many of us can recall a time where visual imagery and situations from media popped up in dream content. Scary media can also cause stress and anxiety for some people (setting the stage for distressing dreams).
An older study of college students found that 90% could recall a frightening TV show or other media experience, and half said it had affected their sleep or eating habits in childhood or adolescence. More surprising is that about one-fourth of the students said they still experienced some residual anxiety. Blood, injury, disturbing sounds, and distorted images were the most prevalent types of phobia-inducing stimuli the researchers identified.
Severe depression and a negative self attitude were associated with a higher incidence of nightmares in a recent study. Depression actually proved to be the strongest predictor in their research, with 28% of sufferers reporting frequent nightmares compared to the sample average of 4%.
One study found adults with personality traits like distrustfulness, alienation, and emotional estrangement were more likely to experience chronic nightmares. Long-time dream researcher Ernest Hartmann proposes that people who have thinner personality boundaries and higher creativity may be more susceptible to nightmares.
Another interesting association is a political ideology. A study of college students found that the conservative participants reported more nightmares and more fearful content than liberals, while the liberals recalled more dreams overall.
Sleep research has documented that temperature and comfort can affect sleep quality, and the environment may have some impact on dream content as well. Temperatures that are too cold or too hot can lead to less restful sleep and more awakenings (meaning more remembered dreams), as can pain.
Make sure your sleeping on a comfortable mattress, to reduce tossing and turning and interruptions to your nightly sleep cycle.
Scent may also play a role. A German study released the scent of rotten eggs or roses into the rooms of sleepers after they entered REM sleep. Upon being awakened, people smelling roses reported more positive dream content while those smelling rotten eggs reported more negative content.
Recurring or more frequent nightmares have been linked with traumatic experiences, including events like relationship violence and surviving natural disasters, and it’s a defining characteristic of posttraumatic stress disorder.
Those with PTSD experience nightmares much more frequently, with research estimating 52% to 96% experience them often, compared to around 3% of the general population. The National Center for PTSD says that nightmares following trauma tend to incorporate similar elements or themes as well as replays of the event.
Certain types of medications, particularly those that influence neurotransmitters may influence nightmare frequency. These include antidepressants and barbiturates that affect REM sleep. If nightmares start after medication changes, bring it up with your physician.
Eating Before Bed
Snacking too close to bed can cause indigestion, and it may also influence your metabolism and dreams. One study linked junk food with nightmares, while another found that a spicy meal close to bed disturbs sleep, as summarized in a Lifehacker article.
Other Influential Factors
- Sleep Deprivation: Experiencing insomnia and fatigue also increase the chances of frequent nightmares, according to the previously mentioned Finnish study.
- Sleep Disorders: People with sleep apnea, restless leg syndrome, and other sleep disorders are more likely to experience nightmares.
- Migraines: Migraine headaches may be linked with more recurrent dreams and nightmares.
- Pain: One study showed 39% of people suffering from burn pain experienced pain in their dreams, which was associated with more nightmares and more intense daytime pain.
Minimizing Nightmares and Brushing Off Bad Dreams
Controlling nightmares remains largely uncharted territory, though there are few different schools of thought when it comes to managing bad dreams. For many people nightmares aren’t really a major nuisance, but if they do wake you up more than you’d like or you have trouble settling down afterwards, here are couple of potential ways to go about preventing them or reducing their severity.
Practice Good Sleep Hygiene
It’s not always possible to completely prevent bad dreams, but setting the stage for good sleep can help ensure you snooze more soundly and feel better rested. Sleep hygiene involves ensuring both your habits and sleep environment are ideal for quality rest.
Your sleep space can have some bearing on your resting state. Ideally, bedrooms should be cool, dark and quiet. Temperatures in the 60s to low 70s are considered best. Remove or turn off light sources like TVs, VCRs, and alarm clocks, and consider light blocking shades if you live in an urban area or sleep past sunrise. Earplugs can be helpful for drowning out bothersome noise.
In terms of habits, keeping a regular bedtime and waketime throughout the week is a key part of supporting your internal clock, as is daily moderate exercise, daily sunlight exposure and a regular evening relaxation routine.
Caffeine and other stimulants can all affect sleep in different ways, and are best avoided the hours before bedtime. Keeping bedtime snacks light and avoiding spicy foods or those that cause indigestion is also recommended.
Talk or Write It Out
Some psychologists believe talking about dreams and getting social support to put them in perspective is key to reducing anxiety following nightmares. This might take the form of talking out dreams with a therapist, discussing them with a partner or in a group setting, or via independent journaling.
If you wake up shaken from a nightmare and can’t get back to sleep right away, it could be helpful to get out of bed and write the dream down, and even change its course.
Image Rehearsal Therapy is a type of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy that involves recalling the nightmare and then writing out a new, more positive version and rehearsing this new scenario daily to displace the original nightmare theme. IRT is a well-researched type of therapy, and is a treatment recommended by the American Academy of Sleep Medicine for chronic idiopathic nightmares and PTSD-related nightmares.
Deal with Daytime Stressors
Other approaches can focus on routines or working on areas of your life that could be contributing to stress or fear. The American Psychological Association’s 2013 Stress in America poll found that stress was associated with poorer sleep, and that poorer sleep was also associated with higher stress
When you’ve had a tough day, take a few minutes to de-stress before bed. Try a warm bath or other techniques to see what helps you most.
Progressive Muscle Relaxation is another method recommended by AASM for nightmares. It involves gradually tensing and relaxing different groups of muscles all over the body to reduce stress and tension. It can be done in a clinical setting, or at home via a guided audio track.
Avoid watching or reading things comprised of common nightmare fodder close to bed. That scary movie, suspenseful book or unsettling news broadcast could wind up in your midnight playlist.
Better choices for winding down if you are looking for more peaceful sleep are lighthearted shows, coloring/sketching, or neutral reading on subjects like self-improvement or hobbies. Remember, electronics like TVs and tablets steal sleep, so it’s best to turn them off at least 30 minutes before bed.
Get Help If Needed
Sometimes, nightmares can become more than just occasional disruptions, becoming a significant source of sleep anxiety. Nightmare disorder is a clinically recognized sleep disorder, classified by frequent and persistent nightmares that regularly disrupt sleep, cause bedtime anxiety and affect daytime behavior. They can also be a symptom of PTSD, which can have a dramatic effect on quality of life.
If you feel like nightmares are making it difficult to get a good night’s sleep often or feel anxiety around falling asleep due to bad dreams, it is worthwhile to discuss it with your doctor and/or a psychologist. They can assess if there are underlying conditions to resolve and prescribe the right treatments and medications when applicable.
Most importantly, don’t feel embarrassed to bring the issue up — nightmares aren’t childish. They can have a significant impact on your waking life, and social support along with healthy lifestyle habits can play an important role in minimizing their impact.
How often do you experience bad dreams? What seems to help you calm down or what encourages more positive dreams for you?
This article is for informational purposes and should not replace advice from your doctor or other medical professional.