Why Do We Have Nightmares?

Almost everyone has a nightmare once in a while – it is quite the same for both adults and kids. For some, nightmares occur more frequently and make it difficult for them to get restful sleep. If you always find it difficult to stay asleep because of nightmares, you may have parasomnia, a nightmare disorder that involves unwanted experiences or events that occur when you are trying to sleep, sleeping, or waking up. A nightmare can make you feel anxious, scared, or upset, but why do we have them?

When Nightmare Occurs?

Nightmares are bad dreams that can wake you up in the middle of the night. Why do we have nightmares? You may not know that the brain does not turn itself off when you fall asleep. It actually goes through a number of stages, including rapid eye movement (REM) sleep during which your eyes continue to move back and forth under your closed eyelids. You are more likely to have a bad dream during this stage.

Your brain switches between REM and non-REM sleep about every 90 minutes. With each sleep cycle, your brain spends more time in REM sleep, and the stage is the longest towards morning. It means that you are more likely to remember your dream if you wake during this stage, which is the reason why your nightmares and other vivid dreams occur in the early morning hours.

Why Do We Have Nightmares?

While everyone have dreams and nightmares too, it is still not clear what makes you see nightmares more frequently. Anxiety, stress, being overtired and irregular sleep routine may provide you with the answer. Here are certain factors that increase your risk for nightmares.

1. Anxiety and Stress

If you are stressed or anxious due to a traumatic life event, you are more likely to get nightmares. Grieving over the loss of someone you love, a major surgery, and suffering an assault or major accident are some of the factors making you stressed and increasing your chance of getting bad dreams. Another common cause of recurrent nightmares is post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Keep in mind that everyday stressors such as major life transitions or financial anxiety can also cause nightmares.

2. Alcohol

Why do we have nightmares? Could be related to alcohol intake. It seems that alcohol will help you sleep because it is a depressant, but things are different. It may help you fall asleep but you will feel stressed once its effects wear off. You will wake up in the middle of the night after having a bad dream.

3. Illness

You are more likely to get nightmares when you have a fever or another illness. Sleeping disorders such as narcolepsy and apnea can also increase your risk of getting nightmares and bad dreams.

4. Certain Food

What and when you eat will also have an impact of what sorts of dreams you get. You are more likely to get nightmares after eating spicy food mainly because it elevates your body temperature and disrupts sleep. That is why you should avoid eating spicy food too close to bedtime to avoid sleep disruption. Eating too close to bedtime may also increase your metabolism and brain activity that in turn makes you see bad dreams.

5. Certain Drugs

You may get nightmares if you are taking certain medications, such as narcotics and antidepressants. These medications change the way your brain functions, which may prompt bad dreams. Blood pressure medications and other non-psychological medications may also be associated with nightmares in adults. You may experience withdrawal effects after leaving tranquilizers or alcohol may also trigger nightmares. If you have started having nightmares more often after taking a new medication, talk to your doctor immediately.

Here is a video to help you understand: Why do we have nightmares?

Will Nightmares Cause Serious Problems?

Nightmares are usually harmless, but they can be so vivid at times that they leave an effect on your health and well-being. People who are already depressed or anxious are likely to suffer more after having a bad dream or nightmare. Nightmares may also trigger suicidal thoughts, although the relation between the two is not clear. Similarly, recurrent nightmares may lead to sleep deprivation that can increase your risk of depression, heart disease and obesity. You should consider talking to a medical professional if your nightmares are affecting the quality of your life.

How to Deal with Nightmares

Why do we have nightmares? Knowing what causes nightmares or what increases the tendency of having bad dreams will help you manage things better. Here are some possible solutions:

  • Your doctor will change the medication if you are having nightmares after starting a new medication.
  • Your doctor will treat you for restless legs syndrome, sleep apnea, or another condition that may be causing nightmares.
  • You may receive behavioral therapy if your nightmares are not medication or illness-related. The therapy also helps people with depression, anxiety, and PTSD.
  • You may receive imagery rehearsal treatment, a type of cognitive behavioral therapy that helps you learn how to change your nightmares.
  • You may have to take medications to treat PTSD-related nightmares.

You can take some other steps as well to reduce your nightmare frequency. Be sure to have a regular wake-sleep schedule, do not eat too close to bedtime, be active, try meditation or another relaxation technique, and limit your intake of caffeine, alcohol, and nicotine.

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