Nightmares are the absolute worst. The dread feels so real until you wake up and are relieved to find you weren’t actually being chased by an angry crowd. Thankfully, psychology recognises nightmares which are commonly defined as terrifying dreams and studies have found that many people experience them. For the most part, there are two main types of nightmares – “garden variety” ones and post traumatic ones. the former category refers to nightmares that most people have while the latter affect people who have been through immense trauma and sadly relive those moments while asleep.
Dreams occur during the Rapid Eye Movement (REM) stage of sleep when the body is resting but the brain is still consuming a lot of energy and firing off commands. The reason why dreams can take on more terrifying characteristics and become nightmares is not fully understood. However, figures show that these are common occurrences. Nightmares are more likely to affect children.
Studies have estimated that 10-50% of 3- to 6-year-olds and over 80% of 7- to 9-year-olds occasionally experience bad dreams. However, even though older adults are 20-50 percent less likely to have nightmares compared to younger adults, many adults still report having bad dreams. A review found that 85% of adults reported having at least one nightmare in the previous year. 8-29% had monthly nightmares, and 2-6% reported weekly nightmares.
If you’re wondering what all these people are dreaming about, studies have asked that question too. A 2014 University of Montreal study found that physical aggression was the most prevalent theme in nightmares, along with death, health and threats. Similarly, a German study identified the five most common nightmare themes as falling, being chased, being paralyzed, being late and death of family or friends. These terrifying dreams were attributed to a range of reasons, including:
- Sleep hygiene – Poor sleep patterns, including sleep deprivation and sleep disorders, have been linked to bad dreams. Also, eating before bed has also been noted to influence metabolism and sleep patterns, which in turn affect dreams.
- Environment – Sleep research has documented that temperature and comfort can affect sleep quality, and environment may have some impact on dream content as well. Temperatures that are too cold or too hot can lead less restful sleep and more awakenings.
- Personality – One study found adults with personality traits like distrustfulness, alienation, and emotional estrangement were more likely to experience chronic nightmares.
- TV or media – An older study of college students found that 90% could recall a frightening TV, movies 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.
- Medications and Drugs – Certain types of medications, particularly those that influence neurotransmitters may influence nightmare frequency. These include antidepressants, narcotics, and barbiturates, as well as withdraw from other drugs that affect REM sleep. If nightmares start after medication changes, bring it up with your physician.
- Pre-existing health conditions – Health problems such as migraines, as well as mental health issues like depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and anxiety have been found to correlate with frequency of nightmares.
With these in mind, here are tips that experts recommend to help you deal with nightmares.
- Practice good sleep hygiene – Ensure you get enough sleep and be careful about what you eat or drink before bed. Don’t eat too close to bedtime and avoid caffeine.
- Talk about it – Psychologists have recommended talking about frightening dreams as a way of dealing with them and preventing recurrence.
- Deal with daytime stressors – Again, talking about issues and addressing stress is important for reducing nightmares since stress and anxiety are a big factor that can cause them.
- Be careful about what you watch – Watching scary films or TV shows can contribute to nightmares. If you find yourself affected by such content, consider avoiding them.
- Get help if needed – If your nightmares persist, don’t brush this off. Nightmare disorder is a clinically recognized sleep disorder, which can be a symptom of PTSD. If your nightmares are frequent and prevent you from sleeping regularly, speak to someone about it and get the help you need.