Nightmares are terrifying. They leave our hearts pounding and our bodies covered in sweat. These vivid and realistic dreams often reflect our deepest fears. Starting in early childhood, nightmares can continue right through into adulthood, with some people being plagued by regular nightmares and night terrors which affects their quality of sleep and their mental health.
What are nightmares and night terrors
Nightmares are very realistic and vivid dreams that occur during the rapid eye movement (REM) portion of your sleep. They often occur when you are anxious about an aspect of your life. In children, many subconscious fears and uncertainties about the world around them appear in their nightmares. Often, they provoke such a strong emotional and physical response from your body that they wake you.
Night terrors are different. They are not accompanied by a visual dream. Instead, you wake up filled with dread and fear. Often your heart will be pounding and you may be sweating. Night terrors can be equally, if not more distressing than nightmares, as you are unsure of why you woke in such a terrified state, which can be very confusing.
Nightmares in childhood
Nightmares are most often experienced by children, typically starting at the age of 3 and lasting until around the age of 8. It’s easy to understand why children at this age might have nightmares. There are a lot of unknowns in the world around them. They still rely on their parents for emotional and physical security and so are not yet confident in unusual surroundings. The fear of strangers or unfamiliar places and situations often produces anxiety for young children in their waking hours. This translates into their sleep and dreams.
If you are having nightmares as an adult, this is fairly common. Half of adults have nightmares occasionally and up to 8% of adults have them regularly. Common scenarios in adult nightmares are often caused by similar emotions to our childhood nightmares. This is usually anxiety and stress you are feeling from a past, present or potential future situation. Some medications and even eating a snack later in the evening can trigger more vivid dreams and increase the likelihood of you having nightmares.
Nightmares that reflect past trauma can be particularly distressing. Sufferers of Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) can relive harrowing experiences over and over again. If you are suffering from repeated nightmares about an event in your past, it may be beneficial for you to talk to your doctor, or a professional counsellor, who may be able help you resolve your feelings and relieve your symptoms.
Similarly, if you are experiencing nightmares because of present or potential future events, dealing with the underlying causes and emotions is likely to be the most effective way to reduce your nightmares. A doctor, counsellor or simply talking to a friend or relative about your problems could be enough to ease your anxiety and stop your nightmares.
Another significant cause of nightmares can be sleep deprivation. If you have a chaotic sleep routine or work long hours with little sleep in-between, this can trigger nightmares.
Most nightmares will pass harmlessly, and will have no lasting effects. Although they are intensely frightening at the time, be reassured that for the vast majority of people they will only happen occasionally. Similarly, if you have young children who are having regular nightmares, this is a very common phase which they will grow out of as they get older.
As adults, one of the most effective ways of avoiding nightmares is to have a regular sleeping schedule which allows you to get enough sleep to be rested for the next day. Back this up with eating earlier in the evening so that your brain is not stimulated too close to bedtime. The other likely cause of nightmares, anxiety, can be significantly reduced by taking regular exercise and practices such as yoga and meditation.
Should your nightmares be persistent and distressing, you may want to seek out advice from a doctor or counsellor. Medications and dramatic past events could be triggering your nightmares, and so resolving these root causes could bring you relief.