What Causes Nightmares In Adults And How To Stop Them

Quality Sleep for a Quality Life

What Causes Nightmares In Adults And How To Stop Them

September 8, 2017 Lifestyle Solutions 1
what causes nightmares in adults and how to stop them

For thousands of years, both dreams and nightmares have been of central interest to humans. Very often, dreams and nightmares would be interpreted as a rendering of information between the spirit realm and the human world.

In Mesopotamia (circa 3100BC), dreams and nightmares were seen as messages from the gods and prophecies about the future. The practice of dream interpretation was often translated to official documents and held an important place in many aspects of culture and day to day life. 


Forward to about 5,000 years or 1,825,000 days later and we’ve got it all figured out, right?


In fact, many people would say that we still regard dreams in a very similar light as our ancestors did. Many popular artists use their dreams as a bridge between their deepest thoughts and the real, tangible world. Examples include Dredg’s El Cielo album, Cristopher Nolan’s Inception, and even Salvador Dali’s persistence of time, which looks like it came out of a nightmare more than a dream.

Sleep in humans is a black box. We’ve discovered a lot of knowledge about it over the last few years, but there are some things which continue to bewilder people and that will require many more years to fully understand. 

In short, it’s a nightmare


Nightmares constitute a big loop hole in sleep science. Scientists are still unsure about the reason why nightmares happen and what evolutionary purpose they serve. However, there is some progress that has been made towards answering this tough question, and I’ll be sharing the knowledge with you on this post. 

Despite all that, sleep science has managed to identify various activities and practices that cause nightmares in adults. This article presents various tips to avoiding nightmares along with explanations of how they work. 

But first, let’s make sure we’re all talking about the same thing here.

What is a nightmare?

In short, a nightmare is any dream that causes a person to feel negative emotions upon waking up. These emotions may include sadness, fear, sorrow, anger and the like.

Nightmares are often associated with children and adolescents. However, these aren’t the only groups that commonly experience nightmares. It’s estimated that about 50% of adults experience nightmares occasionally. Among adults, a research study concluded that women actually experience more nightmares than men.

Many people are affected by recurring nightmares. This can lead to sleep disturbances, sleep deprivation, and even a fear of sleep; all of which can produce a scarring effect on a person’s physical and mental well being.

nightmare in adults

The word “nightmare” comes from the old English word “mare”- which is believed to be a mythological demon that torments humans with scary dreams. The night part was added to emphasize the fact that it happens while sleeping.

Around 80% of the time, nightmares occur during the REM sleep stage of the sleep cycle. If you’re awakened during the REM stage of sleep and were having a nightmare, you’ll likely be able to recall most of its details with ease. 

Nightmares are basically low-quality horror films

It’s theorized that the contents of our nightmares and dreams have no boundaries or order. People can have nightmares about anything at all. They often involve crazy and illogical scenarios that make you feel strong negative emotions as you’re progressing through them.

Nonetheless, the outlandishness and impossibility of nightmares don’t prevent them from feeling any less real. You can have Santa Claus in a clown costume chasing you down with a pitchfork on a high-speed chase over the Pacific Ocean, and at the moment, you would be hard pressed to realize that there’s anything wrong with that picture.

scary dreams and nightmares


Though many examples of nightmares (like these) may sound like flat out craziness, they’re often normal reactions to stress and other troublesome events that have happened in a persons life. Certain nightmares are experienced in a surprisingly similar way by many people. To delve deeper into that, you can read more about the 7 most common nightmares everyone experiences and their meaning. 

If everyone experiences nightmares, what’s the issue?

As with everything else in life, too much of anything is a bad thing.

Having a nightmare here and there is no cause for concern. In fact, it’s can be a sign that your body is working towards clearing out debris and cell waste from the brain. Recurring nightmares, on the other hand, are a sign that something needs to be changed. In most cases, addressing the cause of the nightmares is the best way to stop them.


What causes nightmares in adults?

1. Psychological Triggers

  • Examples include depression, stress, and anxiety.

Nightmares are most often psychologically driven- meaning that most often they occur due to a psychological disturbance. Though, as we’ll see, they can also occur due to consumption of certain drugs and other factors.

Many scientists believe that nightmares and dreams, in general, are a side effect of night-time brain activity. One theory is that while you’re asleep, the brain tries to organize what you’ve experienced while awake into a somewhat logical “story”. This story is ultimately what we experience as the dream

stress is a huge factor for nightmares

If you spend much of your waking time feeling stressed, anxious, or afraid your subconscious might attempt to cope with that by collecting those experiences into a not so pleasant story. 

What if it’s a gift?

Interestingly, a study published in 2002 found evidence to suggest that nightmares may actually serve as another one of the body’s stress coping mechanisms. The study examined 412 students and evaluated links between nightmare frequency, stressors, social support, and coping. The researchers were able to conclude that there was a positive association between nightmares and coping with stress.

Although nightmares may be a way to deal with stress, regular nightmares can wreak havoc on one’s sleep and lead to health issues.


2. Major traumatic experiences 

Experiencing traumatic events is another significant cause of nightmares. One study examined nightmare frequency of children and found that children that had experienced a death in the family or know someone with a chronic illness are more likely to experience frequent nightmares than those that haven’t. 

The traumatic experience can come in many shapes and forms. Going through a major car accident can stimulate nightmares in which you find yourself re-living the car crash. Similar phenomena have been reported by veterans suffering from PTSD.

These nightmares can be particularly emotionally taxing and difficult to deal with. They can be addressed with similar coping methods to those used for fighting stress induced nightmares. 


3. Drug side effects

Drugs that affect the nervous system such as sleep medication, antidepressants, and narcotics are also associated with a higher incidence of nightmares. They may also cause other sleep problems such as insomnia or REM cycle related issues. Does Unisom Work? Rested Life

If you’ve just begun having nightmares after beginning to use a new drug, it may be a good idea to evaluate the side effects of the drug. If the medication is indeed causing the nightmares, your doctor might be able to help you stop the nightmares by finding and alternative medication or decreasing the dosage to a lower level.


4. Drug withdrawal

People undergoing withdrawal from narcotics report experiencing very vivid nightmares and dreams. The nightmares tend to incorporate scenarios that produce feelings of hopelessness, terror, and extreme anxiety.

sleep deprivation causes nightmares

For people going through drug withdrawal, it’s more likely to experience these nightmares around the beginning of the withdrawal period. In some cases, patients don’t experience nightmares per se, but rather very intense dreams that feel indistinguishable from reality. 

This increased occurrence of nightmares and intense dreaming is due to the fact that many narcotics and other drugs suppress REM sleep. Once the withdrawal period begins and your body is allowed to return to its normal REM sleep rhythm, it experiences REM sleep rebound. Suddenly, your body is hit with longer REM cycles and you begin to have more dreams. 


5. Eating right before bedtime

Contrary to some claims on the internet, the sleep science has not yet reached a consensus on the link between dreams and eating before bedtime. Some people report experiencing nightmares when eating a big meal before bedtime, yet many others report no such disturbances after eating. 

A reason why people may experience nightmares after a big night time meal is that immediately after eating, your body remains in a heightened state of metabolic activity. This means your is on overdrive and more active during REM. As you may recall from my post on REM sleep, more activity during REM is associated with having more dreams.

Despite what the final verdict becomes, one thing is very clear: eating before bedtime negatively impacts sleep and causes symptoms of insomnia. Abstaining from food late at night is one of the keys practices to having good sleep hygiene and also avoiding weight gain from unhealthy snacks. 


6. Sleep deprivation

This one is a bit of an oxymoron, but it’s very much true. Skipping out on sleep can cause your REM cycle to be longer and more intense next time you’re sleeping. sleep deprivation leads to more dreams

Longer REM cycles lead to more dreams and nightmares because of a phenomenon called REM rebound in which the body tries to compensate for the REM sleep lost on previous nights by increasing REM cycle duration. 

Ultimately, more REM sleep = more dreams

When combined with the other causes in this list, sleep deprivation can lead to some pretty nasty nightmares.


The key to stopping nightmares in adults

Although nightmares can be a painful experience, rejoice in knowing that, just like many other sleep problems, they can be stopped completely. 

The first step to ending nightmares is identifying what your source of nightmares is

Once you’ve accomplished this, you can begin to address the root of the problem rather than just treating the symptoms. As previously explained, nightmares are often caused by psychological distress. consider some of the following stressors and think about whether they apply to you:

  • A past traumatic experience that may be buried inside
  • Passing away of a loved one
  • Unaddressed sources of anger
  • Sources of anxiety in your daily life
  • Important but neglected responsibilities

If you find that you struggle with one or more e aforementioned items, working with a therapist can help you address these stressors, and subsequently eliminate the nightmares.

For such cases, one proven technique for treating nightmares that you can start using tonight is Imagery Rehearsal Therapy (IRT). IRT is a cognitive behavior therapy technique. It works like this:

  1. Take some time to remember the entire storyline of the nightmare. Try to recall details as much as possible such as characters, places, weather, and anything else you can remember.
  2. Rewrite the nightmare on a piece of paper or on the computer. Here’s the kicker, when rewriting the nightmare change the outcome and plot to something positive. Change the elements of the nightmare that cause emotional distress.
  3. Read it and go over it in your mind. This helps transform your mind’s perception of the nightmare into a positive one.

IRT has been studied and shown to work by multiple scientific publications. A trained therapist can help guide you through this process and help you see what elements of to focus on.

The solution to your nightmares may be simpler than you thought

If your nightmares are caused by side effects of prescription drugs, the solution may be as simple as switching the medicine for a different type or eliminating its use altogether. 

Tak to your doctor if you believe your current medication is causing nightmares for you. Depending on the case, he or she may be able to switch it out or recommend an alternative treatment. 


Your essential anti-nightmare shield

Whether the source of your nightmares is psychological or more tangible, one of the most important things you can do to stop the nasty effects that come from nightmares is to follow proper sleep hygiene.

protect against nightmares with good sleep hygiene

  Sleep hygiene constitutes all of the different habits that allow you to get the best possible sleep. Such habits include sleeping in a cold room, avoiding the use of electronics before bedtime, and not having heavy meals at night. Check out our free sleep hygiene fact sheet to see some of the best practices for good sleep. 



I hope this article has been helpful for you. Feel free to share it with anyone that you know who might suffer from nightmares or might want to learn more about them. 


Stay Rested



One Response

  1. Thomas X. Quinn says:

    I am 66 years old. I sleep well most of the time. I use a C-Pap machine. I have been having dreams that are not scary in nature, but end up with me finding myself in situations that are frustrating in that I can’t seem to get a satisfactory resolution to a situation that is unpleasant and should ordinarily be solvable. Instead things seem to get worse as time goes by. In the end I can’t cope with the situation and so I escape by waking up. I usually don’t have a problem getting back to sleep.
    I was taking Melatonin for a while but stopped some time ago. I take Tylenol PM most nights, but have been doing that for a long time.
    I can’t figure out what may be triggering these dreams.

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