If you have ever been jolted awake by a nightmare, then you may believe your bad dream was the result of a particularly scary movie, book or event you experienced during the day. However, researchers state the cause of nightmares have more mundane causes.
Researchers make a distinction between nightmares and dreams that are disturbing. The primary characteristic of a nightmare is that it wakes you up quickly and suddenly.
Understanding what causes nightmares allows you to circumnavigate the triggers most often associated with them. Sleep researchers have now compiled a list of at least five major factors that tend to produce nightmares in a majority of sleepers, regardless of geography, nationality, age or gender. It should be stated that women and children have nightmares more than men, but at least 50 percent of adults have the occasional nightmare. While nightmares do not threaten your health or sleep quality, once you return to sleep, they can leave lasting feelings of insecurity or unease upon waking. Learn what the most common triggers are, why nightmares happen and how you can lessen their recurrence.
Negativity Breeds Nightmares
Sleep researchers have discovered negative thinking triggers nightmares more often than any other trigger. Unresolved negative issues, negative self-talk or low self esteem all play a factor in creating a nightmarish dream state. For example, researchers from Chicago state the brain acts like a computer. Whatever is imputed during the day is uploaded at night. Therefore, if negative thoughts or negative situations from the day are on your mind prior to sleep, the brain is loaded with these thoughts which it recycles during sleep. A 2015 Finnish study indicates sleepers who are experiencing depression or who admit to having low self-esteem are 28 percent more likely to have nightmares frequently.
The Stress-Nightmare Connection
Unresolved conflicts and relationship stress all provide fertile ground for nightmares to grow. Think of dreamland like the surface of your skin. If kept clean, or at least cleaned regularly, no blemishes occur. However, after an accumulation of dirt or bacteria, you experience pimples. As a byproduct of the mind, nightmares are your worries and stress translated into the realm of your subconscious.
Personality Types and Nightmares
A study done in 2001 indicated certain personality types were more prone to nightmares as compared to others. The study interviewed participants who experienced at least two or more nightmares a month. After removing other variables what they were left with was the personalities of these individuals were similar in nature. All of them were open minded individuals who were sensitive and often very creative. Their dreams were more vivid, lasted longer and often were in color.
Food and Nightmare Connection
A Canadian study concluded almost 10 percent of sleepers who ate before going to bed experienced bad dreams. A second study in the U.S. also agreed with this conclusion after they interviewed 400 students who kept records of their dreams and what they ate prior to going to bed. In nearly all of them, dairy products consumed before going to bed prompted the nightmares and often caused bizarre and frightening nightmares. Other studies suggest spicy food consumed very late at night contributes to nightmares.
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Alcohol consumption, according to the Cleveland Clinic, is one of the worst beverages to consume prior to bed. This is because after the sedative effect wears off, your body’s metabolism is off center and causes fragmented, often nightmarish, dreams. Additionally, the nightmares are more vivid and the tendency to act out your dreams, sleep walk or swing your arms wildly is increased.
Medication and Nightmares
Certain over the counter medications, as well as prescription drugs, can cause nightmares. The Mayo Clinic has done numerous studies and found antihistamines, high blood pressure medications, steroids, cholesterol medications and some antidepressants elevated the frequency of nightmares for program participants. Additionally, sleepers who were experiencing Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s also reported elevated nightmares, which the researchers attribute to the medications used to treat these diseases.
When to Seek Help for Nightmares
While most who experience nightmares only have them on occasion, if you are having nightmares and are afraid to go to sleep, then professional help is needed. Sleep is the time for your body to reboot itself and process events from the day. Nightmares produce a high anxiety state and do not allow your body to rest. The next day you experience fatigue and a sense of heightened awareness as your body assesses the area for potential threats. This is left over from prehistoric days, researchers state, when it was necessary to remain vigilant. When your sleep is interrupted consistently, your ability to function is impaired and you can struggle to at home, school or at work. When seeking medical help for recurrent nightmares, look for a physician who is board-certified in sleep medicine.
When left untreated, recurrent nightmares impact your health in many ways. Your energy lags and your ability to focus or concentrate is impaired. Next your mental health begins to suffer, and you are a prime candidate for depression, anxiety and high blood pressure. While it is not fully understood, researchers believe there is a direct link between recurrent nightmares and mental health conditions. Those suffering from frequent nightmares are at a higher risk for suicide and self-harming behaviors.
Controlling Your Nightmares
Is it possible to control your nightmares? Researchers state that while you cannot always stop them from happening, you can lessen their frequency. First, watch what you eat at least a couple of hours before bed. Research the types of medications you take and if one of the side effects is “vivid dreams,” see if there are alternate mediations you can take. Healthy habits such as exercise, meditation and even journaling are effective in reducing stress, allowing you to sleep more deeply and well.
Experts also agree nightmares, of the infrequent variety, are actually a good thing. Nightmares can alert you to something not quite right in your life, something that needs to be dealt with. Acknowledging the issue and dealing with it may bring you the good night’s sleep you deserve.
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