What Your Nightmares Are Telling You (And How to Stop Them)
Has this ever happened to you?
You wake up in the middle of the night, heart pounding. You’re scared and disoriented. You just had a very realistic nightmare.
You’re not alone!
Nightmares don’t only happen to children afraid of monsters under their beds. 8-29% of adult Americans have a nightmare every month, and 2-6% have a nightmare every week. (1) That’s a lot of missed sleep!
It’s no secret that people who sleep better are happier, more successful, and healthier. (2)
Every time you’re woken up by nightmares, you’re disrupting your sleep. You’re risking sleep deprivation and all its harmful effects.
If you want to get better sleep, you need to learn what causes nightmares. Turns out, avoiding nightmares and getting better sleep is easier than you might think!
What Are Nightmares?
Nightmares are vivid dreams that cause feelings of fear, distress, sadness, or anxiety. They occur during REM sleep cycles when your brain activity is high, but your body is under sleep paralysis.
Sleep paralysis prevents you from acting out your dreams. Without it, you could dream about fighting a monster and wake up to find yourself fighting your own pillow!
Nightmares are not the same as night terrors or nocturnal panic attacks. (1)
Night terrors occur mainly during slow-wave sleep, are harder to wake up from, and are more difficult to remember clearly.
What Are the Causes of Nightmares?
Sleep scientists have different opinions on what causes nightmares. Here are a few theories.
1. Nightmares are your brain attempting to put a story to random neural signals. This could explain why dreams and nightmares often seem random and full of nonsense.
2. Nightmares help us learn. You might have noticed you recall new information more easily after you sleep on it, which could be due to dreams and nightmares.
Some researchers believe information moving from short-term to long-term memory storage builds nightmares. Others think dreaming gives you the chance to “practice” new information – and if that information is unpleasant, you get a nightmare.
3. Nightmares are the “garbage disposal” of memory. Your brain is trying to get out unnecessary details and stresses. You don’t need to remember scary details about that horror movie you just watched, so your brain “clears them out” in a nightmare.
4. Nightmares allow you to practice dealing with threats safely. Most nightmares are worst-case scenarios. For example, you may have a nightmare in which you not only forget your pants, but you have to give an important on-the-spot presentation!
If you encounter a less extreme scenario with some of the elements of your nightmare, you’ll be better able to deal with it.
5. Nightmares help you work through anxiety and traumatic events. They draw attention to things which are causing you stress and help you process them.
More frequent nightmares are a sign something is wrong (3)and can be caused by:
Side effects of medications
Medical conditions including sleep and psychological disorders
Excessive stress or anxiety
Have you heard the urban legend that overeating cheese causes nightmares? Turns out it might not be so crazy after all!
Eating spicy or junk foods before bed can also cause nightmares. Just another reason to watch what you eat before sleep!
What Are the Most Common Nightmares? What Do They Mean?
Don’t be so quick to forget your bad dreams! Your nightmares can let you know what is causing you stress.
Once you know what’s causing your bad dreams, you can fix it.
Here are 4 common nightmares and their meanings:
1. Walking in late
You’re overscheduled and can’t keep track of all your commitments. You worry about forgetting important things because you’re too busy worrying about other things.
2. Being chased
You’re avoiding an issue or person. You know the problem will continue to catch up to you until you’re forced to confront it.
3. Death of a loved one
You’re dealing with a big life change represented by the dying person in your nightmare.
Even positive life changes (like starting a new job or relationship) can cause the occasional nightmare. This is completely normal. It’s just your brain’s way of dealing with change.
You feel out of control and unsupported by loved ones.
The environment in your dream gives clues to the source of the stress in your life. Use these clues to find out what’s bothering you and tackle the issue so you can get some sleep!
How Can Nightmares Affect Your Health?
Occasional nightmares are normal. Don’t worry about them, just try to get back to sleep as quickly as possible after you wake up.
If you regularly wake up with nightmares, you’re probably not getting enough quality sleep – especially REM sleep.
Without REM sleep, you’ll be tired, irritable, paranoid, and unable to focus.
Disclaimer: The information contained in this website or provided through our blog, e-mails, or programs is for informational purposes only. It is not intended to be a substitute for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment that can be provided by your healthcare professionals.
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