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Nightmares are often clear and vivid, chilling us to the bone. Sometimes, when people talk about their nightmares, it can be hard to understand the weird worlds and emotions their subconscious minds serve up. They can be about anything…
People in peril, weather disasters, nuclear war, disembodied hands coming out of walls and heads and the ground. You could find yourself running away from snakes, from skeletons, from vampires, from evil spirits and mystical beings.
And sometimes you don’t get away.
According to the research, for an estimated 2 to 8 percent of the U.S. population, nightmares can be a real problem. People who have frequent nightmares may fear falling asleep. Both children and adults experience nightmares, even though they are associated with childhood.
Nightmares can be triggered by a variety of things, but these 10 are most often to blame:
It is easy to understand how this happens. Your adrenaline is keeping you from finding the relaxation you need to wind down for sleep. Often you are pulled into the narrative.
“We’re wired to develop some anxiety in response to a threat,” Sunny Volano, LPC, a licensed therapist who specializes in anxiety, tells Bustle. “While movies are not a real threat, they create the same fear in your brain, and it has trouble telling what’s real versus imaginary. Scary movies can cause someone to have nightmares because it triggers the fight or flight response.”
More than half of all nightmares occur around the time of a major life event, such as starting at a new school, changing careers or having a child.
If your mind is unable to stop focusing on the ordinary problems of life, this constant worry could also cause you to have nightmares. People with anxiety or trauma are far more prone to getting nightmares.
If you’re someone who’s always slightly on alert, it can make you more sensitive to scary images like blood, gore, and violence. “These images can get stuck in your head and can lead someone with anxiety to feel fearful over what could happen to them or someone they love,” Sunny Volano says.
Narcotics, barbiturates, and over the counter sleep aids, which act on chemicals in the brain, are known to cause nightmares. This is especially true of narcotics that alter the brain’s chemical balance. Many of the antidepressants used to treat depression have nightmares as a side effect. Also, some medications prescribed for high blood pressure cause nightmares.
Withdrawal from narcotics, including pain medication and tranquilizers, also act on chemicals in the brain.
Does our environment contribute to nightmares? It is not possible to control your nightmares, but your sleep space can have some bearing on your resting state. Bedrooms should be cool, dark, and quiet.
Temperatures in the 60s to low 70s are considered best. The space should be dark and quiet. Turn off light sources like TVs and computers. Don’t take your cell phone to bed with you. The blue light our electronics emit is not conducive to slumber. Consider light blocking shades if you live in an urban area or want to sleep past sunrise.
Caffeine is a stimulant, so it’s counterintuitive to have a cup of coffee before going to sleep. Any substance that will alter or disrupt the brain’s normal functions can deny users a normal sound sleep and trigger insomnia and nightmares.
In fact, a study showed that drinking coffee within six hours of going to bed led to one less hour of sleep a night. And at the end of the year, you’ve lost 365 hours of sleep, which is more than 15 days.
In A Christmas Carol, Ebenezer Scrooge blamed cheese for causing his ghostly night-time encounters. He only ate “a crumb” and the story may have had a happy ending, but somehow the idea that cheese gives you nightmares persists. Is there any truth to this?
No, you can’t blame cheese specifically, but eating before bed is not a good idea when you are plagued by nightmares. It can trigger indigestion and disrupt your ability to get to sleep and stay asleep. It also increases brain activity and raises the body’s metabolism, which can trigger nightmares for some individuals.
Sleep apnea is a serious medical condition in which breathing is interrupted during sleep. If you suffer from this condition, you are not getting the proper rest. It is estimated that 22 million Americans suffer from it, but most are undiagnosed. There is a higher amount of nightmares reported by this group.
Lower blood oxygen levels have been linked to nightmares. Several studies substantiate the link between nightmares and untreated sleep apnea. Reports of bad dreams involving feelings of suffocation and drowning are common among these patients, who often awake in fear or with palpitations. Sleep deprived people suffer more nightmares. It’s a vicious cycle: not enough sleep time may lead to nightmares, and having nightmares can cause a lack of sleep.
Post traumatic stress disorder is an anxiety disorder that often develops after experiencing something traumatic, such as events in war or physical attacks. If you have experienced trauma, you are much more likely to suffer from nightmares.
In fact, while roughly 5% of the general public suffers from nightmares, at least 52% of veterans with PTSD do.
If you think you’re suffering from PTSD, it’s worth speaking with a therapist to determine whether cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is right for you. One study showed that, after 20 weeks, this form of treatment eliminated recurring, PTSD-related nightmares for 77% of patients.
Temperature affects the way your brain works. When you have a fever, your brain is not functioning well. Elevated brain temperatures disrupt the brain’s normal cognitive process. This means that a fever can produce waking hallucinations or nightmares if you fall asleep.
It is unsurprising these nightmares often include burning or melting images. The brain’s awareness of fever induced heat translates into a nightmare. Nightmares, like dreams, can mirror aspects of our recent waking life.
Fever nightmares are described as emotionally intense and more negatively toned.
There is also a theory that certain people may have a genetic predisposition to nightmares. In other words, nightmares run in your family.
Could there be a nightmare gene? The answer is maybe. Researchers so far have identified two genes that control or influence dreaming. One day they may be able to shut off the nightmare switch, but we are not there yet.
Nightmares can happen to anyone, and in most cases the reasons why the nightmares occur are unclear. Many things can contribute. Stress and anxiety are often thought of as the main culprits. And for those folks that have an irregular sleep routine, you increase the risk for nightmares too.
Is it possible to minimize our nightmares? Probably. In some instances, the more nightmares someone has, the more likely they are to experience negative emotions the next day and to fret over those emotions. This may be causing a nightmare-go-round. Are you convincing yourself you will have a nightmare again tonight? Try having positive thoughts.
How can you get rid of nightmares? Take a few minutes to reevaluate your sleeping habits and overall lifestyle. You may need to make some of the following changes:
There is surprisingly little scientific research on nightmares. The real problem in conducting research on nightmares is that people forget the specifics of their dreams. They are not awake when the nightmare occurs, but when they are awakened by the nightmare, they are not completely lucid. A person is often awakened by fear and not clear headed. They ask themselves if whatever happened in the dream is real. Moreover, all the data is by definition self-reported, so it’s not possible to know exactly what transpired in the actual dream itself.
Because nightmares are so difficult to research, we may not currently know all of their causes. By looking at the above causes and examining your own situation, though, the hope is that you’ll be able to take action to reduce any nightmares you may be experiencing.