The Science Behind Nightmares

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The Science Behind Nightmares


 A little girl afraid of monsters lurking in the dark night / Photo by Shutterstock


Studies have shown that 75% of dreams are negative. These negative dreams can cause someone to replay traumatic memories in their mind, feel fear and anxiety, and a disrupting of one’s sleep routine. These are indications that an individual is having a nightmare.

Most of the time, children are the ones who experience nightmares. mentions that the occurrence of nightmares in their sleep is 10% to 50%.

However, according to WebMD, 2% to 8% of the adult population experience this as well. They further state that one in two adults occasionally suffer from this. Nightmares typically happen in the early hours of the morning.

What occurs in those nightmares and what they are centered on is different for every person, but some of the most common are dreams wherein one is falling, a person’s teeth falling out, and attempting to run away from some kind of danger.

Having haunting nightmares can be a sign that a person is suffering from a sleep disorder. Knowing their causes, effects and how to prevent them from recurring can help stop a person from getting frequent nightmares.


Defining a Nightmare

Nightmares are vivid, realistic disturbing dreams that show frightening and upsetting scenarios that can cause an individual to suddenly wake from their sleep. These nightmares can cause the dreamer distress both during and after the dream.


Nightmare Disorder

Having defined what nightmares are, when does it become a disorder? It becomes a disorder when it happens so often that it interferes with your daily sleep schedule. According to, a nightmare disorder is a condition where an individual experiences frequent nightmares and is constantly awakened by them from sleep.


Causes of Nightmares

According to, it may be caused by a dreamer’s memory, since dreams play a vital role in them. They can be minor variations of a person’s memory of the events of a day or a way to cope with their fears and trauma.

Other elements that may cause a person to have nightmares are:

- Watching movies or reading books that induce fear before sleeping

- Negative thoughts before going to bed

- Some hidden anxiety and stress disorders such as PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder)  and General Anxiety

- Being tired and sick

- Drugs, medication, and withdrawal

- Having a late night snack before going to sleep

- Other underlying sleep disorders such as sleep apnea and restless legs syndrome

Individuals who have had traumatic experiences are more likely to have played in their nightmares repeatedly. People who have depression and anxiety are also shown to be prone to having bad dreams. Medical News Today states that some forms of medication including sleeping pills, heartburn medication, blood pressure pills and some antidepressants are also revealed to induce nightmares.




According to, here are some indicators that a person is having a nightmare:

- Moaning

- Talking

- Slightly moving

After a nightmare, a person may experience:

- Increased heart rate

- Anxiety

- Sweating

- Fear

When a person wakes up from their nightmare, they recall the dream so clearly that they fear that going to sleep will make it occur again. That recollection may stay in their mind and cause them to be unable to relax and go back to sleep.



Having frequent nightmares will definitely take a toll on an individual’s mental and physical well-being. Some of the negative effects of nightmare disorder according to WebMD and are:

- Experiencing Sleep Deprivation which can lead to obesity, depression and heart disease

- When these are caused by anxiety and depression, they may consider committing suicide

- Anxiety

- Daytime sleepiness

- Decreased mental alertness

- Irritability

Since having recurring nightmares results in lack of sleep, this may cause the dreamer to feel more anxious, sleepier during the day, become more irritable towards others and become less mentally alert.



Although there are no specific treatments that are known to cure nightmare disorder, there are some measures which are suggested by

For children, they recommend that parents:

- Establish a regular sleep routine

- Read stories to them to give them positive thoughts before bedtime

- Talk about happy memories with them before going to sleep

Meanwhile, adults are advised to:

- Have a regular eating schedule

- Have enough sleep

- Lessen their consumption of frightening media

In relation to this, they also advise that therapy and the use of relaxation techniques may lessen the frequency of nightmares.


In addition, WebMD has other tips that may also prevent an individual from getting nightmares:

- Treat other underlying  sleep disorders like sleep apnea

- Imagery rehearsal treatment, for those with PTSD

- Set a regular sleep-wake routine

- Exercise regularly

- Try yoga

- Try meditation

- Practice good sleep hygiene

- Ensure that they keep their room peaceful and relaxing

- Be conscious and lessen their intake of caffeine, alcohol, and nicotine.


Since most nightmares are mostly caused by other medical conditions that include sleeping disorders and mental disorders, it would be helpful to address these problems first.

One should also be mindful of their sleeping and eating schedule because these are also factors that can contribute to the tendency to have nightmares. A person must also be careful with their intake of alcohol, caffeine, and nicotine since these can also disrupt one’s sleep.


A mother is telling a bedtime story to her asleep child / Photo by Shutterstock




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