The Shocking Truth About Nightmares

The Shocking Truth About Nightmares


During sleep, the mind engages in complex and enigmatic dreaming. While dreams can evoke joy and happiness, they can also take a dark turn, instilling fear and distress and disrupting sleep. When a particularly distressing dream awakens us,it is known as a nightmare. While occasional nightmares are usual, some individuals experience them frequently, affecting their sleep and daily lives. Understanding the distinctions between bad dreams, nightmares, and nightmare disorder is crucial in identifying the causes of nightmares, seeking suitable treatment, and improving overall sleep quality.

What are Nightmares?

Nightmares are intense and distressing dreams that evoke strong feelings of fear, terror, or anxiety. They typically occur during the rapid eye movement (REM) sleep stage, when dreams are most vivid and immersive. These dreams often involve threatening or dangerous situations, such as being chased, attacked, or trapped.

When experiencing a nightmare, the emotions and sensations can feel incredibly real, causing an individual to wake up abruptly. Upon awakening, a person may feel a lingering sense of unease, fear, or discomfort. Nightmares can disrupt sleep patterns, leading to sleep deprivation and daytime fatigue.

While occasional nightmares are a normal part of sleep, frequent or recurring nightmares can indicate an underlying issue. Various factors, including stress, trauma, anxiety, medication, and sleep disorders, can trigger them.

What are the types of Nightmares?

There are mainly three types of nightmares.[3]


What are the types of Nightmares?


Idiopathic Nightmares:

Idiopathic nightmares are dreams that occur without a known cause or trauma. They can evoke unsettling scenarios and fear or confusion. Managing them involves relaxation techniques and addressing underlying factors.


Recurrent Nightmares:

Recurrent nightmares involve repeated dream themes or scenarios. They stem from unresolved traumas or psychological distress. Treatment may include therapy to address the underlying causes and reduce their frequency.


Post-Traumatic Nightmares:

Post-traumatic nightmares are vivid and distressing dreams following a traumatic event. They directly relate to the trauma and can worsen PTSD symptoms. Treatment involves therapy and medication to address the trauma and provide coping mechanisms.


Understanding and addressing idiopathic, recurrent, and post-traumatic nightmares is essential for managing sleep disturbances and promoting overall well-being.

Symptoms of Nightmares

Nightmares can present with a range of symptoms, including[1]:

  1. The dreamer experiences intense fear or anxiety during the dream.
  2. Sweating excessively or having an increased heart rate upon awakening.
  3. Difficulty returning to sleep after a nightmare episode.
  4. A vivid recollection of the dream, including specific emotions and details.
  5. Disrupted sleep patterns, with frequent awakenings during the night.
  6. Feeling physically and emotionally fatigued due to disturbed sleep.
  7. Lingering feelings of uneasiness, fear, or distress after waking up.
  8. Avoidance of situations or activities related to the content of the nightmare.
  9. Changes in mood, such as irritability, sadness, or heightened anxiety.
  10. Impaired daily functioning and overall well-being.

While occasional nightmares are considered normal, if the frequency or intensity of nightmares starts affecting daily life, it is advisable to seek professional assistance for evaluation and support.

Causes of Nightmares

The causes of nightmares can vary from person to person, but some common factors that may contribute to their occurrence include[2]:


Causes of Nightmares


  1. Stress and anxiety: High stress or anxiety levels in daily life can increase the likelihood of experiencing nightmares during sleep.
  2. Traumatic experiences: Nightmares can be caused by past traumatic experiences, including accidents, abuse, or witnessing distressing events, as the mind processes and attempts to deal with the emotional impact.
  3. Medications and substances: Certain medications, such as antidepressants or drugs that affect the central nervous system, can disrupt sleep patterns and contribute to nightmares.
  4. Sleep disorders: Conditions like sleep apnea, insomnia, or restless leg syndrome can interfere with the sleep cycle and lead to nightmares.
  5. Disrupted sleep patterns[4]: Irregular sleep schedules, sleep deprivation, or frequent awakenings during the night can disrupt the normal sleep cycle and increase the occurrence of nightmares.
  6. Mental health conditions: Anxiety, depression, or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can be associated with more frequent nightmares.
  7. Environmental factors: External factors like extreme temperatures, noise, or an uncomfortable sleep environment can disturb sleep and contribute to nightmares.

It’s important to remember that everyone’s experiences are unique, and individual factors may play a significant role in causing nightmares. If nightmares persist or significantly affect your well-being, consult a healthcare professional to explore underlying causes and potential treatment options.

How to Prevent Nightmares?

Nightmares can be distressing and disruptive to our sleep, leaving us feeling anxious, unsettled, and even afraid of going to bed. However, there are steps we can take to help prevent nightmares and promote more restful sleep[5]:


How to Prevent Nightmares


  1. Stick to a consistent sleep schedule:  Establishing a regular sleep routine can promote better sleep patterns and reduce the likelihood of nightmares.
  2. Practice relaxation techniques: Engage in calming activities before bed, such as reading a book, listening to soothing music, or taking a warm bath to help relax your mind and body.
  3. Manage stress levels:  Find healthy coping methods, such as exercising regularly, practicing mindfulness or meditation, or journaling your thoughts and feelings.
  4. Create a peaceful sleep environment: Ensure your bedroom is comfortable, quiet, and free from distractions to promote more restful sleep.
  5. Avoid stimulating substances: Limit or avoid consuming caffeine, alcohol, and heavy meals before bedtime, as they can disrupt your sleep and potentially trigger nightmares.
  6. Seek professional help if needed:  If nightmares persist or significantly affect your quality of life, consider contacting a healthcare professional or therapist specializing in sleep disorders or dream therapy.
  7. Review medications:  If you suspect that certain medications may be causing nightmares, discuss your concerns with your healthcare provider to explore potential alternatives or adjustments.


Nightmares can be unsettling and disrupt our sleep, causing distress and affecting our overall health. Understanding the causes and triggers of nightmares can help us prevent them. Implementing healthy sleep habits, managing stress, creating a calming bedtime routine, and seeking professional help are essential.


The UWC app’s Sleep Wellness Program provides resources to manage nightmares, improve sleep quality, and enhance overall well-being. With specialized features and expert guidance, individuals can find relief from distressing effects of nightmares and achieve better sleep health.


[1]“Nightmare disorder,” Mayo Clinic, 05-Jun-2021. [Online]. Available: [Accessed: 18-May-2023].

[2]M. Schredl, “Nightmare disorder,” in The Parasomnias and Other Sleep-Related Movement Disorders, M. J. Thorpy and G. Plazzi, Eds. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001, pp. 153–160.

[3]E. Suni, “Nightmares,” Sleep Foundation, 09-Oct-2020. [Online]. Available: [Accessed: 18-May-2023].

[4]“Nightmares and the brain,” [Online]. Available: [Accessed: 18-May-2023].

[5]A. Pietrangelo, “Nightmares,” Healthline, 17-Jul-2012. [Online]. Available: [Accessed: 18-May-2023].

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