Why do we have nightmares and what causes them?
In fact, around 6% of adults still experience nightmares. And although nightmares in adults happen less frequently, they can still cause a lack of sleep, stress and irregular sleeping patterns. This can then lead to longer term effects that might impact our health and wellbeing, so it’s crucial to nip them in the bud early on, if you can.
What are nightmares?
When you’re busy snoozing, your mind is even busier, working away to create your own individual dream world. Essentially, brain waves create visual activity for you – the sleeper. This then plays in your head as a dream – or sometimes, a nightmare.
In general, there’s not much we know about why we dream. Popular theories include sleepers managing their subconscious thoughts, sorting out and storing their memories, or simply random chemical signals.
So, when it comes to what causes nightmares, there are several reasons. While some can just be spontaenous, and not much different to a typical dream, there are a few underlying disorders or day-to-day factors that can play an influential role in causing nightmares in adults.
What causes nightmares?
Late night snacking
Have you ever eaten just before bed and then found that you’ve woken up in a hot sweat from a vivid nightmare? That’s because having a sneaky midnight snack can significantly boost your metabolism, which makes your brain more active when you’re sleeping – leading to disruptions in your sleep, and an increased risk of nightmares. Try to eat your evening meal at least 3 or 4 hours before you go to bed, or even try a cup of herbal tea to help you drift off.
Certain medications – or withdrawal from medications - can also cause nightmares in adults. If you spot a difference in your sleep or your nightmares after a change in medication, you should talk with your physician to get some extra advice on how to remedy this.
If you suffer from sleep apnea or restless leg syndrome, you might find that nightmares are a common side effect. This is down to experiencing lower blood oxygen, which is linked to nightmares in adults that disrupt normal REM sleep. This makes for disturbances and bad dreams with more ‘bizarre’ content. So, if you find that you’re having some pretty peculiar nightmares that are shaking you up or keeping you awake, it could be explained by an underlying medical issue that you’re unaware of.
There are also a number of psychological triggers that can lead to nightmares in adults becoming more prevalent. For instance, anxiety or depression are both common causes of experiencing a bad spell of nightmares or irregular sleep patterns. This is usually because our brain is working in overdrive, and has little time to settle. These bad dreams can be something as small as forgetting an important detail of the day, to something a little more unsettling like an overwhelming sense of panic when trying to run from danger. No matter what your nightmare entails, it’s important to get a handle on them so that you can get a good quality night’s sleep.
Are PTSD and nightmares related?
Nightmares can be more of a worry if you suffer from PTSD, as the visions you have while sleeping can relate to - or replay - a traumatic event. It’s also common for nightmares in adults to be much more frequent if PTSD is an underlying condition. Typically, nightmares in adults happen as a reaction to stress, but what can you do if they get out of control and start having an impact on your quality of life?
Around 96% of people who have PTSD experience bad dreams. While that seems like a scarily high number, there are things you can do to combat them.
Treatments include cognitive therapy, meditation and imagery rehearsal therapy. These techniques involve talking through your nightmares and consciously changing the plot of them either in your mind or out loud. While medication is rarely prescribed for issues relating to PTSD and nightmares, you can still talk to your physician for a professional opinion.
Is it possible to stop having bad dreams?
Having nightmares is one thing – but trying to prevent them is another. The mind’s night-time movie reel is something that not many of us will ever fully understand, and the more we worry about having a bad dream, the more unlikely it is that we’ll be able to peacefully nod off.
It’s true - you can’t take control of what you see while you sleep. However, there are a few things you can do in your own life that can ease up your nightmares, or even stop them completely.
How to stop nightmares in adults
The most frustrating part of having a bad dream is being woken up by it. When you wake up, it’s much easier to remember the content of the nightmare, which in turn forces you to continue thinking about it, making it more difficult to get back to sleep.
The best approach to tackle this, is to do everything you can to stop your brain – or body – from waking you up in the night. Luckily, there are some simple home remedies for nightmares that will reduce your chances of being woken up, and will put your mind at rest before bed.
Home remedies for nightmares
Temperatures: If you’re too hot or cold in bed, you’ll likely have a pretty restless sleep. This means more unexpected wake-ups, and more chance of short, intermittent bad dreams occurring. To regulate your temperature in bed – and create the perfect sleeping environment – invest in a temperature controlled comforter or mattress topper and give yourself the best possible chance of a great night’s sleep.
Scents and smells:It may sound a bit strange, but scientific studies have shown that the smell of your sleeping environment can have a huge impact on how you dream. Try lighting a scented candle for a couple of hours before you go to bed, or treating yourself to a lavender infused pillow. You might find that the positive aromas allow you to fall into a calm, soothing sleep.
Break the bad habits:If you have bad dreams, you might want to think about taking a step back from caffeine, alcohol and nicotine in the hours leading up to bedtime. This also means laying off the chocolate, fizzy drinks, non-herbal teas and even painkillers – if you can.
Get into a routine:Sticking to a regular evening bedtime routine is a key part of putting your mind at rest before going to sleep. It gives you an internal clock, meaning your brain and body can adjust to your sleep cycle.
Exercise:We’re not saying you should go for a run or do 500 sit-ups to conk you out before bed, but embracing some yoga, meditiation or light daily exercise – like taking the dog for a walk – can make a huge difference in how settled you are at night.
Writing and talkingPsychologists believe that being open about your bad dreams can help to put them into perspective, whether it’s with a therapist, partner or just a friend. In the same way, writing your nightmares down on paper can help you to take back some control.
Avoid the triggers:It may seem obvious, but you should always avoid watching or reading things that scare you, or things that might be related to PTSD symptoms. If you’re prone to nightmares, you should also lay off the video games, because they can easily carry over into your subconscious – don’t shoot the messenger!
You can even consider switching up your sleeping environment. For instance, some studies have shown that changing a south facing bed to a north facing position can help to reduce nightmares. You could also swap out your synthetic bedding for high-quality wool bedding. Not only does it regulate your temperature while you sleep, but it also wicks away any excess moisture; meaning you’re a lot less likely to wake up in a hot or cold sweat in the middle of the night.
Do you have any insights or pearls of wisdom on how to stop nightmares? Let us know!