By LOUISE CARR, Associate Editor and Featured Columnist
A nightmare can be a truly terrifying occurrence even for adults. Nightmares are scary dreams that are highly realistic and inspire fear, often waking you from deep sleep with a jolt of dread. Children are very likely to experience nightmares. And did you know that women actually suffer more nightmares than men? A 2009 study from the University of the West of England in the UK came to this conclusion.
The American Academy of Sleep Medicine says nightmares are "usually coherent visual dreams that seem real and get more disturbing as they unfold and cause you to wake up."
Nightmares are not real but they can have real consequences for your health. Nightmares are not something to be brushed off as “just a dream”. They can have a significantly negative effect on anxiety levels and depression. They can contribute to poor quality sleep, which is a risk factor for heart disease and other chronic disease.
And increased nightmares have even been linked to suicide – in a 2016 study from The University of Manchester in the UK, suicidal thoughts, plans or attempts were present in 62 percent of people who were experiencing nightmares. The study goes on to say that nightmares may trigger stress in people who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, and trap people into a cycle of negative cognitive thoughts like defeat, hopelessness, and entrapment. The study looked at 91 people who had experienced traumatic events.
While nightmares may be common and can have serious consequences, what can you do to stop having them? Are there any natural remedies or lifestyle changes that can help?
When Do Nightmares Happen?
We dream in REM sleep. When we sleep we are in a paralyzed state while the body releases glycine that makes sure we are not moving and acting out our dreams.
We go through sleep cycles of around 90 to 110 minutes each and the first period of REM sleep is usually around 90 minutes after we fall asleep. Nightmares are more likely to occur during this period of rapid eye movement sleep (REM sleep).
And since REM sleep becomes more prevalent as the night goes on, you are therefore more likely to have a nightmare in the early hours of the morning.
Why Am I Having Nightmares?
No one really knows why nightmares happen although there are a number of different factors that can affect whether or not you wake up in a cold sweat at night. One factor is eating late at night, particularly food that is heavy, spicy, or rich as this can signal the brain to become more active just as you are going to sleep. Medications can cause nightmares, particularly narcotics and antidepressants.
Nightmares may be more common if you are also suffering from a psychological condition, for example depression or anxiety. Chronic and recurring nightmares are often the consequence of post-traumatic stress disorder.
And nightmares may be more common when you suffer from a sleep disorder like sleep apnea or restless legs syndrome. Plus, nightmares have been proven to occur more regularly in people who suffer from migraines.
So what can you do if you suffer from nightmares on a frequent basis?
By looking at the themes of the nightmares and any other condition you are suffering, psychological or physical, you may be able to get to the bottom of your frightening dreams.
We looked at recent scientific research to find out what causes nightmares, and how to prevent them.
1. Insomnia and Depression Are Likely to Result in Nightmares
A 2015 study from the University of Turku in Finland and the Finnish National Institute of Health and Welfare demonstrated that depression and insomnia are strongly linked with frequent nightmares.
And they also found that frequent nightmares lead to increased fear that each night would bring another trauma. Researchers looked at data taken for two surveys of the Finnish population, looking at 13,922 people who completed questionnaires.
They found that 28.4 percent of people experiencing severe depression reported also experiencing nightmares, and 17.1 percent of people with frequent insomnia experienced nightmares.
In a 2017 study from The Menninger Clinic , Houston , Texas, imagery rehearsal therapy helped psychiatric inpatients who were experiencing nightmares. There were 20 participants in the study and nightmare frequency reduced after going through the treatment.
2. Children Who Are Bullied Are More Likely to Suffer From Nightmares
Children who are bullied at age eight to 10 are more likely to suffer from nightmares at the age of 12, according to a 2014 study from the University of Warwick in the UK.
Children are also more likely to suffer from sleepwalking and night terrors. The researchers looked at data from 6,796 children who took part in the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children (ALSPAC). Researchers say that nightmares may happen after anxiety levels reach a threshold.
3. Nightmares Caused by Post-Traumatic Stress
Disorder Can Be Treated With CPAP Therapy
Nightmares are common in people who have post-traumatic stress disorder. A 2013 study from the Sleep Disorders Laboratory at G.V. (Sonny) VA Medical Center in Jackson, Mississippi shows that CPAP therapy helps to reduce the frequency of nightmares in veterans who suffer from PTSD.
CPAP is continuous positive airway pressure therapy, where the airways are kept open so that a steady stream of air passes through, by using a mask. It is also an effective treatment for sleep apnea. The results of the study demonstrated that the mean number of nightmares per week fell significantly with the use of CPAP.
4. Migraines May Cause You to Have Frequent Nightmares
Terrifying nightmares may happen as a result of a migraine aura, according to experts. A 2000 study from Klinik für Psychiatrie und Psychotherapie der Medizinischen Fakultät der RWTH Aachen in Germany shows this can happen on a regular basis for people who suffer from migraines.
Another study, a 2014 report from the University of Milan in Italy, demonstrates that people who suffer from migraines tend to dream in a strange way, with more dreams focusing on fear and anguish. This study looked at 412 people, 148 of which suffered from migraines.
5. Sleep Apnea Produces Nightmares: What to Do
A 2011 study from , Swansea University in the UK reveals that people with sleep apnea are more likely to have emotionally negative dreams than “sleepy snorers”.
A total of 47 people with sleepiness and snoring took part in a sleep assessment and completed a diary every morning.
Sleep apnea causes periods at night where breathing stops. The condition can be treated with continuous positive airway pressure therapy, as discussed above, which results in a more stable airflow during sleep.
6. Imagery Rehearsal Therapy is Useful for Treating Nightmares
One of the most respected ways to treat recurrent and disturbing nightmares is imagery rehearsal therapy.
A 2015 study from Utrecht University in the Netherlands looked at 90 patients with psychiatric disorders and assessed nightmare frequency using daily nightmare logs.
Imagery rehearsal therapy is where the script of the nightmare gets rewritten and changed into a new dream, which is then reimagined throughout the day. The therapy had a moderate effect on nightmare frequency and distress caused by nightmares, which was sustained over three months.
7. Treat Restless Legs Syndrome to Stop Nightmares Recurring?
Nightmares are associated with restless legs syndrome, although it is not certain which comes first, the disrupted sleep causing the nightmares or the nightmares contributing to restless legs syndrome.
A 2013 study by Marin LF and Prado GF entitled “Vivid dreams may precede symptoms of restless legs syndrome” indicates that it is the latter, although it is also possible that the two are intricately linked. Taking vitamin E has been shown to have a positive effect on restless legs syndrome, according to a 1969 study by Dr. S. Ayres Jr. .