What Causes Nightmares?

At one time or another, just about everyone has experienced a night when they wake up feeling dazed and frightened. When you realize that you just had a nightmare, it usually takes a moment to understand that what you experienced wasn't real. While it's more common for children to have nightmares, adults get their fair share too. Researchers have done studies to figure out exactly what causes nightmares.

What is a nightmare?

A nightmare is a dream that turns frightening. They usually occur during the rapid eye movement (REM) stages of sleep, which can be in the first few hours of sleep or towards morning, and can vary in time span.

What causes nightmares?

The subjects of nightmares vary, but most are usually related to something that made a profound impression on the person.

  • If you've been in an accident or witnessed a crash, you might relive that moment in your dreams.
  • A sudden confrontation with a pest, like a spider or a rat, can stay in your subconscious and give you nightmares at night.
  • A movie-and the actors in it-can stay on your mind and project images into your dreams.
  • A story, whether told or read, can give you nightmares. If someone told you about finding a swarm of red ants in their house, you might dream about ants because the story made an impression on you.

Other causes of nightmares

What you eat and drink late at night can be a factor.

  • Eating a heavy meal close to bedtime or consuming alcohol can give you nightmares. Instead of relaxing, your metabolism signals your brain to start working.
  • Certain medications can be the cause of nightmares. Drugs such as antidepressants that influence brain chemicals contribute to triggering brain activity.
  • Withdrawal from medication, alcohol or nicotine can also lead to nightmares. Your body has become accustomed to these substances and when deprived of them, it reacts through withdrawal symptoms that can include bad dreams.
  • An irregular sleeping pattern or depriving yourself of sleep can also result in nightmares.
  • Stress is another cause. Whether it's during exam time, before an upcoming interview or if you're having personal problems, anything that puts your mind under stress can manifest itself in nightmares.
  • Pregnant women, as well as women who menstruate or go through menopause might suffer from occasional nightmares. Whenever hormones are unbalanced, the brain responds.

Treatment of nightmares

You don't have to suffer. Help is available.

  • If you recently started a particular medication or switched medication and you experience nightmares, talk to your doctor. He will be able to prescribe something different and/or change the dosage.
  • If nightmares occur after a particularly traumatic event, therapy can be the answer. Talking about psychological problems in a safe environment with a professional is often beneficial.
  • If nightmares occur due to late night eating or drinking, adjusting these habits will take care of the problem.
  • If the cause of your nightmares is the inability to relax, do your brain a favor and refrain from watching upsetting movies or reading stories that you know will frighten you. Instead, before bedtime, try breathing exercises, meditation or yoga. A relaxed mind is sure to give you sweet dreams.

When you take the time to determine the cause of your nightmares, something can be done to prevent them from happening.

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