Every person has been woken up suddenly by a nightmare, some just happen to experience it more often than others. And while the moments that follow waking up with a sudden jolt is come with momentary relief — realizing that unpleasant dream was just that, a dream — the rest of the night is usually not so fun.
Nightmares tend to happen during our deepest phases of REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep and when that’s interrupted it’s typically going to be difficult to fall back asleep anytime soon. This can easily lead to restless nights, making nightmares a pretty disruptive and inconvenient occurrence. An estimated 50 percent of adults have occasional nightmares, according to psychology experts, and women tend to 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.”
Dina Merhbi, a registered dietitian in Montreal and founder of the Body Balance Method explains that sleep’s purpose is simply for the body to have time to relax and recharge, and nightmares create such a high anxiety state that the body isn’t able to accomplish this, forcing the body to navigate through things like fatigue, heightened senses, and an increase in caffeine and sugar intake. “In the long term, 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,” she says.
However, only about one percent of the adult population is considered to have nightmares frequently enough that they require some kind of medical attention. According to the Mayo Clinic, nightmares are only considered a disorder once they become frequent enough, they cause major distress or impairment during the day, such as anxiety or persistent fear, or bedtime anxiety about having another nightmare, they create problems with concentration or memory, or you can't stop thinking about images from your dreams, they cause sleepiness, fatigue or low energy throughout the following day, they create problems functioning at work or school or in social situations, or they result in behavior problems related to bedtime or fear of the dark.
And while nightmares can’t be completely controlled or avoided altogether, there are certain known links that can contribute to them from time to time. Perhaps managing some of the challenges in your waking day can minimize the impact nightmares have on your life. Like…
Believe it or not, insomnia is associated with an increased risk of having nightmares. This means other factors that can contribute to sleep deprivation like extreme or sudden changes in rituals and schedules will result in the irregular sleep schedule as well as changed waking times and overall sleep reduction.
Mental Health Problems
One study in Finland found that people with depression and a negative self-attitude were more prone to having nightmares. Twenty-eight percent of participants in the study had severe depression and reported having more frequent nightmares.
“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.”
“Our brains work like a computer; what goes in equals what comes out,” says John Mayer, a clinical psychologist practicing in Chicago. “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.”
This is also a tricky one to consider because nightmares can be a result of nightmare disorders as well as a trigger. Depression, anxiety, and even suicidal thoughts have been found to be the symptoms of frequent nightmares for some.
You’re Processing a Trauma
“Nightmares affect the experience of sleep quality but not sleep architecture: an ambulatory polysomnographic study” is a 2015 study that declared nightmares are actually a common and significant symptom of post-traumatic stress disorder. This can include anything from recovering from a serious accident or injury and even physical or sexual abuse.
“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.”
And even if you’re not experiencing trauma yourself, the Mayo Clinic acknowledges that “scary books or watching frightening movies” can increase your risk of nightmares. So that old idea that kids shouldn’t watch scary movies before bed is actually not an old wives tale but a real potential trigger for nightmares.
Eating Before Bed or Nightcaps
These are two things people often do in an attempt to actually help them sleep — at least that’s the intention.
Eating a meal or even a snack late will increase your metabolism and raise your body temperature, making your brain more active and prone to nightmares during sleep.
As for nightcaps, once the alcohol is metabolized, you’re more likely to experience fragmented and disrupted sleep with more vivid dreams. It should also be noted that substance abuse of alcohol and drugs can be found to be associated with an increased risk of nightmares as well.
According to the Mayo Clinic, blood pressure medications, antidepressants, antihistamines (found in sleep aids and allergy medicines) and steroids all commonly interfere with restful sleep and peaceful dreams.