Nightmares: Can They Be Stopped?

by Mike

Nightmares! We all have them. They can be pretty darn scary. Be it monsters, desolate places, teeth breaking or falling out, inability to scream, running at a slug’s pace while being chased by a demonic being. It doesn’t matter who you are or where you’re from, at least one of these should sound familiar.

These often visceral, disturbing dreams can leave us feeling off and tired even during the day. When it comes to dreaming in general, it has always been a mystifying subject. Each one of us has different dreams, and while the general gist of it doesn’t differ much, the way our minds shape these ideas and concepts never ceases to amaze. Nightmares are no exception. Even though they’re terrifying, one cannot deny how fascinating they can be. Many even go as far as to read deeper into them and uncover several underlying issues.

Not As Simple As You Think

Dreams, in general, are a whole big field in psychology and neuroscience. Much is yet to be uncovered, and there are plenty of vague notions and concepts that are yet to be precisely and reliably explained by science. This is mainly due to the fact that dreams vary immensely from one person to the other. It’s actually quite fascinating to hear other describe their dreams.

One of the biggest mysteries that surround dreaming is the reason behind it. There isn’t much to go off of when it comes to answering this question. However, there is a common hypothesis that seems to make sense. Some scientists believe that dreaming is a way to organize and filter information in our brain. Research has shown that new connections between neurons are formed during our sleep, and that can be attributed to dreaming.

Knowing that, the expression ‘sleeping on a problem’ makes much more sense now as sleeping and perhaps dreaming have been linked to an increase in problem-solving capabilities.

In this article, we’ll be discussing some interesting theories and hypotheses regarding nightmares that will hopefully give you more insight into the inner workings of the human brain and might even help you get something positive out of these horrid dreams

Nightmares: What Are They?

Simply put, nightmares are dreams that carry with them a sense of dread, fear, terror, and distress. They’re usually very vivid and visceral, leaving us with a horrible ‘aftertaste’ so to speak.

Don’t confuse bad dreams for nightmares as nightmares are much more vivid and to the point that they’ll make you wake up startled, sweaty, and with a racing heart. You’ll also be experiencing the same feelings of dread and fear that you experienced during the nightmare. This engraves the nightmare in our minds and is the primary reason as to why we usually have a much clearer recollection of our nightmares than other dreams.

When you’re sleeping, your brain is busy cycling through NREM and REM sleep. REM stands for Rapid Eye Movement sleep. As the name implies, during this state, your eyes move rapidly, your brain consumes a lot of energy, and your muscles get paralyzed. This is why you’re able to move and take action during dreams without actually moving in the real world.  It’s in this state that you enter the dream world. It’s also during this phase nightmares occur.

Still a Mystery

The exact reasons behind dreaming are still shrouded in mystery, but there are several theories going around. Some believe that dreams are our brains’ way of managing and organizing subconscious thoughts, while others think it to be a way of sorting memories and newly acquired information, etc.

Another even more puzzling question is why we have nightmares. It’s probably closely linked to the events we experience during our waking, but that remains to be adequately explained.

Nightmares are most common among children, with an estimated 10 to 50% of 3 to 6-year-olds experiencing bad dreams while more than 80% of 7 to 9-year-olds frequently experiencing nightmares.

When it comes to adults, nightmares become scarcer as we age. However, they still occur as it has been proven by a literature review that found that around 85% of adults report having at least one nightmare the last year, while 8 to 29% report having nightmares on a monthly basis, and 2 to 6% report getting them on a weekly basis. It has also been shown that older adults tend to be 20 to 50% less likely to experience nightmares than younger adults.

What Influences the Content of Your Dreams?

Even though nightmares vary a lot from person to person, they all tend to follow a common theme. We can see this throughout history, seeing how certain civilizations have their own explanations for certain nightmares, and we can see that even the people that walked the earth centuries before us had nightmares that are not far off ours.

Regarding the matter, a 2014 University of Montreal study[1] that analyzed 431 bad dreams, of which 253 are nightmares found that most of the group’s dreams shared some semblance of physical aggression along with health or death threats.  Men seemed to have nightmares that involved themes of war and natural disasters while women had more nightmares revolving around interpersonal conflicts. What all of these nightmares had in common is that they left the person who experienced them with a feeling of fear, sadness, and even disgust.

A German study[2] also uncovered similar results and patterns, with the most frequent nightmare themes involving: being chased, paralyzed, late, falling, or even death of close friends and family.

There is no apparent reason or consensus as to why we experience nightmares. However, there are plenty of links between nightmares and our daily lives, be it relationships, medications, shock and trauma, and other events.

Personal Experiences

Dreams, and nightmares for that matter, often encompass elements and events from our daily lives, both directly and indirectly. Dreams can involve mundane and everyday activities such as taking tests, paying bills, working. Feelings of stress, worry, or anxiety can also be part of slumber visions.

Events usually begin to become incorporated into dreams within the week during which they occur. Dreams can also involve past personal experiences and memories, something akin to an autobiography of sorts. Research showed that these memories are usually experienced in a fragmented, selective way.

Stress and Anxiety

Anxiety and stress are commonly widespread these days. There are a variety of things that can cause them. These things can range from relatively minor stuff like failing a task, working, school, to other more pressing matters, like the loss of a loved one, divorce, trauma, and in some cases, anxiety disorders.

While stress and anxiety are associated with poor sleep in general, they are also able to induce horrible nightmares. One study[3] conducted on German athletes has shown that 15% of the group reported dreadful dreams before a big event, in most cases, they involve athletic failure. A lot of students also report experiencing nightmare revolving around tests and exams. These nightmares can linger well after they’ve finished school.

Movies and TV Shows

We all recall watching some horror movie and then having nightmares about it. While there’s no scientific proof, plenty of anecdotal evidence exists. Although it’s tricky to study the effects of visual imagery on dream content; one can see how some images might linger in our minds and bleed into our dreams.

An earlier study[4] on college students found that around 90% of them could recall a frightening movie, TV show, or other media type. Half of them reported that it had an effect on their sleep or eating habits in both childhood or adolescence. On top of that, one-fourth of the students reported that they’re still experiencing anxiety.

Injury, blood, distorted images, and disturbing sounds were the most frequent types of phobia-inducing factors that the study identified.

Depressive Disorders and Nightmares

Depression is vicious; it can bleed into all aspect of one’s life as it targets our essence, that is self-attitude and how we view ourselves. It shouldn’t come as a surprise to know that depression can trigger nightmares.

According to a recent Finnish study[5] conducted on a large scale, depression is the strongest predictor of nightmares, with 28% of depressed subjects reporting more frequent nightmares compared to the average of just 4%.


A study[6] has shown that adults who are distrustful, emotionally estranged, or alienated were more prone to chronic nightmares. Ernest Hartmann, a well-known dream researcher, believes that creative people with thinner personality bounds are more prone to experiencing nightmares.

Political ideology is yet another interesting link. A study[7] done on college students reported that the conservative subjects had more nightmares with more dreadful content compared to liberals who seemed to recall more dreams in general.


Trauma has been known to trigger nightmares. Events like natural disasters, violence, and other shocks can lead to PTSD or post-traumatic stress disorder.

People with PTSD[8] are much more prone to having nightmares. Research estimates that 52-96% get them more frequently compared to the general population that has a nightmare rate of 3%.

The National Center for PTSD states that bad dreams following traumatic events tend to heavily include themes or elements from the event, and in most cases, might even replay the whole ordeal altogether, putting the sleeper through an amplified version of the shock.

Drug, Medications, and Nightmares

Medications that affect neurotransmitters tend to interfere with one’s dreams and might result in more frequent nightmares. Such drugs include, but are not limited to, narcotics, barbiturates, and antidepressants. If you start experiencing nightmares after changing your medication, you might want to talk to your physician.

The National Institutes of Health’s Medline[9] states that nightmares can also be linked to alcohol and drug consumption and withdrawal.

Eating Before Going to Bed

Going to bed right after eating can interfere with one’s dreams and metabolism, according to a study that associated nightmares with junk food, and another[10] that reported that a spicy meal before bed can disturb sleep.

Other Factors That May Cause Nightmares

  • Migraines: These headaches have been associated with more frequent nightmares and dreams.
  • Pain: A study[11] showed that 39% of people suffering from burns also experienced severe pain in their dreams and nightmares.
  • Sleep Disorders: Those with sleep apnea and restless leg syndrome along with other sleep disorders tend to be more prone to experiencing nightmares.
  • Sleep Deprivation: In the aforementioned Finnish study, fatigue and insomnia have been linked with an increased risk of experiencing nightmares.

How to Get Rid of Nightmares?

Taming nightmares and controlling what we dream about still remains a mystery to this day. However, there have been a couple of different approaches to managing nightmares.

For the majority of the population, nightmares are more of an inconvenience than an actual problem. However, we shouldn’t forget about those who experience frequent bad dreams, which can heavily decrease the quality of sleep.

For those people who want to minimize the risk of having nightmares, here are a couple of things to do in order to ensure the least amount of those horrible dreams.

Maintaining Sleep Hygiene

While it’s impossible to eradicate nightmares completely, there are some steps you can take to limit them. Preparing your mood and the environment for good sleep can go a long way in avoiding bad dreams and increasing the quality of sleep.

Even you’re the place you sleep in can influence one’s resting state. The best way to set up your bedroom to make sure it’s quiet, dark, and cool. Temperatures between 60-70°F (15-21°C) are optimal in this case.

It’s also advised to turn off any electronics in your vicinity as they might interfere with your sleep.

When it comes to good sleeping habits, these mainly include having a consistent bedtime and wake time throughout the week; this consolidates your internal clock. Exercise on a daily basis also seems to improve one’s internal clock, as well as regular sunlight exposure.

You should avoid nicotine, caffeine, and alcohol like the plague before sleep. All these substances interfere with your sleeping cycles and resting state. Avoiding spicy diets and eating light before bedtime is recommended in order to ensure good sleep.

Get it Out of Your System

Since nightmares are so closely linked with what we experience during the day, it’s important not to go to bed holding inside a grudge or any form of negative emotions.

Many psychologists[12] believe that talking about nightmares and dreams and getting social help to put them into perspective goes a long way in preventing any lingering effects induced by nightmares.

Another way of doing this is by writing it out. If a nightmare keeps you from falling back asleep again, you can always write about the experience and how it makes you feel in order to get it out of your system.

There’s also Image Rehearsal Therapy, which is a Cognitive Behavioral Therapy that includes remembering the nightmare and imagining a happier, positive version of it, then writing and rehearsing the newly written scenario on a daily basis in order to replace the original nightmare scenario.

Image Rehearsal Therapy is a well-documented approach that is recommended by the AASM[13] for both PTSD-related and chronic idiopathic nightmares.

Dealing with Stressors

A poll[14] that was done by the American Psychological Association in 2013 associated stress with poor sleep, which was caused by higher amounts of stress.

It’s critical that we empty our minds of any issues that we might have and de-stress in order to go to bed with a clear mind. This can be done through a myriad of ways, you can meditate, take a warm bath, do yoga, listen to relaxing music, and the list goes on and on. Try these methods and see what works best with you.

It’s also recommended that you stay away from nightmare fodder. Horror films, tragedies, arguments, fights, and anything that can breed negative emotions can only increase the risk of experiencing nightmares. Look for something light-hearted and warm in order to clear your mind.

There is a method that’s recommended by the American Academy of Sleep Medicine or AASM for bad dreams known as Progressive Muscle Relaxation[15]. You basically have to gradually tense and relax certain muscle groups in order to reduce stress. This method can be done at home via an audio track or in a clinical setting.

Playing Video Games Can Help with Nightmares

A study[16] that was done on former Canadian and American male soldiers that don’t suffer from PTSD found that the participants who played video games had less dreadful dreams and nightmares in general. Researchers hypothesize that this is due to the process of desensitization associated with gaming carrying over to dreams.

On the other hand, follow-up research[17] found that these benefits are exclusive to men. The subjects in questions were college students that experienced trauma-related dreams in the past.

The study reported that male gamers experienced traumatic events were less prone to getting nightmares, while female players had the most trouble with bad dreams.

Researchers believe that the genre of the game and sex-role conflicts within it can affect gaming’s ability to protect against bad dreams.

If Nothing Works, Get Help

When nightmares become more than a minor inconvenience, it should call for an intervention. Why? Because nightmare disorder is a medically-recognized disorder. By definition, this condition includes persistent nightmares that alter sleep quality on a regular basis, affect daytime behavior, and cause bedtime anxiety. Those signs can also be symptoms of PTSD, a disease that can dramatically change one’s quality of life for the worse.

If you relate to the aforementioned symptoms, then it’s probably best for you to bring up the issue with a doctor or psychologist. Don’t be ashamed of bringing the subject up as it can significantly help you in the long run and you’ll be thankful for it. Intervening early on is far easier than trying to solve the problem after it had taken its toll on you.


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