What causes nightmares? 9 possible conditions
Nightmares are dreams that are scary or disturbing. Learn about nightmare causes, diagnosis, treatment, and prevention. Read more
Nightmares are dreams that are scary or disturbing. The themes of nightmares vary widely from person-to-person, but common themes include being chased, falling, or feeling lost or trapped. Nightmares can cause you to feel various emotions, including:
You may continue to experience these emotions even after you wake up.
People of all ages have nightmares. However, nightmares are more common in children, especially those under age 10. Girls are more likely to be troubled by their nightmares than boys. Nightmares seem to be a part of normal development, and except in the case of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), they usually aren’t symptoms of any underlying medical condition or mental disorder.
However, nightmares can become a problem if they persist and interrupt your sleep pattern. This can lead to insomnia and difficulty functioning during the day. Consult with your doctor if you are having trouble coping with nightmares.
Nightmares can be triggered by a variety of factors, including:
- scary movies, books, or videogames
- snacking just before bedtime
- illness or fever
- medications, including antidepressants, narcotics, and barbiturates
- over-the-counter sleep aids
- alcohol or drug abuse
- withdrawal from sleeping pills or narcotic pain medications
- stress, anxiety, or depression
- nightmare disorder, a sleep disorder marked by frequent nightmares
- sleep apnea, a condition in which breathing is interrupted during sleep
- narcolepsy, a sleep disorder characterized by extreme drowsiness during the day followed by quick naps or sleep attacks
- PTSD, an anxiety disorder that often develops after witnessing or experiencing a traumatic event, such as a rape or murder
It is important to note that nightmares aren’t the same as sleepwalking, also called somnambulism, which causes a person to walk around while still asleep. They also differ from night terrors, also known as sleep terrors. Children who have night terrors sleep through the episodes and usually don’t recall the incidents in the morning. They may also have a tendency to sleepwalk or urinate in bed during night terrors. Night terrors usually stop once a child reaches puberty. However, some adults may have night terrors and experience limited dream recall, especially during times of stress.
Most children and adults have nightmares from time to time. However, you should schedule an appointment with your doctor if nightmares persist over an extended period of time, disrupt your sleep patterns, and interfere with your ability to function during the day.
Your doctor will ask you questions about your use of stimulants, such as caffeine, alcohol, and certain illegal drugs. They will also ask you about any prescription or over-the-counter medications and supplements you are currently taking. If you believe a new medication is prompting your nightmares, ask your doctor if there is an alternative treatment that you can try.
There are no specific tests for diagnosing nightmares. However, your doctor may advise you to undergo a sleep study. During a sleep study, you spend the night in a laboratory. Sensors monitor various functions, including your:
- brain waves
- blood oxygen levels
- eye movements
- leg movements
- muscle tension
If your doctor suspects that your nightmares may be caused by an underlying condition, such as PTSD or anxiety, then they may run other tests.
Treatment usually isn’t required for nightmares. However, any underlying medical or mental health problems should be addressed.
Your doctor may recommend counseling or stress-reduction techniques if any of the following conditions is triggering your nightmares:
In rare cases, medication for sleep disturbances may be advised.
What to Do About Nightmares
Lifestyle changes may help decrease the frequency of your nightmares. You can try:
- exercising at least three times per week
- limiting the amount of alcohol and caffeine you drink
- avoiding tranquilizers
- engaging in relaxation techniques, such as yoga or meditation, before you go to bed
- establishing a sleep pattern by going to bed at the same time every night and getting up at the same time every morning
If your child is having frequent nightmares, encourage them to talk about their nightmares. Explain that nightmares can’t hurt them. Other techniques include:
- creating a bedtime routine for your child, including the same bedtime each night
- helping your child relax with deep breathing exercises
- having your child rewrite the ending of the nightmare
- having your child talk to the characters from the nightmare
- having your child keep a dream journal
- giving your child stuffed animals, blankets, or other items for comfort at night
- using a nightlight and leaving the bedroom door open at night
- Common questions about nightmares. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.asdreams.org/nightma.htm
- Mayo Clinic. (2012, March 5). Mayo Clinic review: Blood pressure drug effective for treating PTSD-related nightmares. [Press release]. Retrieved from http://www.mayoclinic.org/news2012-rst/6732.html
- Mayo Clinic Staff. (2014, August 9). Nightmare disorder. Retrieved from http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/nightmares/DS01010
- Mayo Clinic Staff. (2014, August 12). Sleep terrors (night terrors): Symptoms. Retrieved from http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/night-terrors/ds01016/dsection=symptoms
- Nightmares. (2013, July). Retrieved from http://kidshealth.org/en/kids/nightmares.html#
See a list of possible causes in order from the most common to the least.
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