What are nightmares and how to prevent them?

Both adults and children can experience bad dreams and nightmares.Nightmares are vividly realistic, disturbing dreams, and most often you awake from a deep sleep. The fear grips you causing heavy breathing and increased heartbeat much like when you are faced with real danger. Nightmares tend to occur most often during rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, when most dreaming takes place.

During a nightmare, you experience a range of disturbing emotions, such as anger, guilt, sadness or depression. However, the most common feelings are fear and anxiety.

Causes of bad dreams include:

  • Stress
  • Fear
  • Trauma
  • Emotional issues
  • Medication or drug use
  • Illness

Certain conditions appear to increase the frequency of nightmares in some people. These include:

Migraine: Recurrent dreams featuring complex visual imagery, often terrifying nightmares, can occur as migraine aura symptoms. These dreams often involve the emotions of fear and anguish.

Sleep apnea: People with sleep apnea have more emotionally negative dreams than those who simply snore while asleep.

Depression: Frequent nightmares are associated with suicidal tendency in individuals with major depression.

Occasional nightmares aren’t usually a cause for concern. If nightmares are recurrent enough, they can develop into what’s known as “nightmare disorder.” The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Disorders defines nightmare disorder as “repeated awakenings with recollection of terrifying dreams, usually involving threats to survival, safety, or physical integrity.”

Consult a doctor if:

  • Occur frequently and persist over time
  • Routinely disrupt sleep
  • Cause fear of going to sleep
  • Cause daytime behavior problems or difficulty functioning

Most often chronic nightmares are caused by psychological issues though, and for this a psychologist or therapist could also be consulted.

How to avoid nightmares?

We have no control over the dream mechanism, it is not possible to completely prevent bad dreams, but creating a stress-free  and safe environment, increases the chance of better sleep. Sleeping at a fixed time of the day, engaging in exercise and meditation all help set you in the right mood for deeply restorative sleep.

Choosing a mattress that helps you stay cool and relaxed through the night may also play a role in staying in a happier state of mind.

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