Nightmares are dreams that trigger strong feelings of fear, terror, distress, or anxiety. They feel more vivid or intense than a bad dream, and nightmares often cause the sleeper to wake up and experience intense feelings upon waking. People who wake up during a nightmare are likely to remember the details of it.
7 Factors That Influence Nightmare Content
Personal Experiences. For most people, nightmares tend to incorporate aspects of our waking lives in both literal and abstract ways. Negative things like stress, fear, worry, arguments, and other aspects of our days could also show up in nightmares. It also commonly involves past experiences, our personal experiences, and long-term memories of the self.
Anxiety and Stress. Stress and anxiety can come in many forms, from everyday things like moving to a new place and changing schools or work, to major things like divorce, losing a family member, trauma, or anxiety disorders. Being stressed and feeling anxious is also associated with poor sleep, and both may also trigger a nightmare.
Media. Multimedia such as scary movies, thrilling or suspenseful shows, or even fear-inducing news broadcasts can cause nightmares. A study on college students found that 90 percent could recall a frightening TV, movie or other media experience, and half said it had affected their sleep or eating habits in childhood or adolescence. About a quarter of the students said they still experienced some residual anxiety.
Depression. Severe depression and negative self-esteem were associated with a higher incidence of nightmares in a Finnish study. Depression was indicated as a strong predictor in their research, with 28 percent of sufferers reporting frequent nightmares compared to the sample average of 4 percent.
Environment. Temperature and comfort can affect sleep quality, as documented in sleep research. Temperatures that are too cold or too hot can lead to less restful sleep and more awakenings. Scent may also play a role. A German study indicated the scent of rotten eggs or roses into the rooms of sleepers after they entered REM sleep could impact dream content. Upon awakening, people smelling roses reported more positive dream content while those smelling rotten eggs reported more negative content.
Traumatic Experiences. Reoccurring nightmares have been associated with traumatic experiences, including events like relationship violence, surviving natural disasters, and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). According to research, those with PTSD experience nightmares more frequently, with about 52 percent to 96 percent who experience them, compared to the 3 percent of the general population.
Medications and Drugs. Certain types of medications, particularly those that influence neurotransmitters, may influence nightmare frequency. These typically include anti-depressants, narcotics, and barbiturates. If nightmares start after medication changes, bring it up with your physician.
Minimizing Nightmares and Brushing Off Bad Dreams
For many people, nightmares aren’t really a major nuisance, but if they do wake you up more than you’d like or you have trouble settling down afterwards, here are three potential ways to prevent them or reduce their severity.
Practice Good Sleep Hygiene. Set the stage for good sleep. Sleep hygiene involves ensuring both your habits and sleep environment are ideal for quality rest. Your sleep space should be cool, dark, and quiet. Temperatures in the 60s to low 70s are considered best. Remove, dim, or turn off light sources like TVs, alarm clocks, and consider light blocking shades. White noise machines or earplugs can be helpful for drowning out random noise. Caffeine, alcohol, and nicotine can all affect sleep in different ways, and are best avoided the hours before bedtime.
Talk or Write It Out. If stressed, talking about nightmares or influencing factors can put them in perspective and reduce anxiety. This might take the form of talking it out with a therapist, discussing them with a partner or in a group setting, or independently via journaling.
Deal with Daytime Stressors. The American Psychological Association’s 2013 Stress in America poll found that stress was associated with poorer sleep, and that poorer sleep was also associated with higher stress. When you’ve had a stressful day, take some time to unwind before bed. Try a warm bath, relaxing music, yoga or other meditative techniques to see what helps you most. Avoid watching or reading things consisting of common nightmare triggers close to bedtime, such as scary movies, suspenseful books, or unsettling news broadcasts.
Schedule a Consultation
Nightmares can become more than just occasional disruptions, being a significant source of sleep anxiety. Recognizing and understanding the symptoms, causes, and treatment options can ease the severity of nightmares. If you suffer from frequent nightmares, it may be time to discuss a prevention and treatment plan with your doctor. Join our many satisfied patients, and schedule an appointment with Dr. Shukla today so he can help you conquer your nightmares and get a good night’s rest.