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What Are Nightmares and How Do They Affect Sleep?

It’s no secret that getting a good night’s sleep plays an important role in your health. But if you find your peaceful rest is interrupted frequently by nightmares, you might start wondering what’s going on — and what you can do to get back on track.

What are nightmares?

A nightmare is simply a frightening or unpleasant dream.

For most people, dreams are thought to be recent autobiographical episodes interwoven with past memories.

Nightmares are simply dreams that cause a strong, unpleasant emotional response. While nightmares are most common in children, adults do report being plagued by them. Heightened levels of tension and worry can affect anyone, and often a line can be drawn from daytime stress to nighttime turmoil.

When do nightmares happen?

We dream as we come out of REM sleep, the stage characterized by rapid eye movement, irregular heartbeat, and increased rates of breathing. Usually this occurs about 90 minutes after you fall asleep. Since the brain is more active during this stage, dreams can take on an intense, vivid quality. Many nightmares happen in a state somewhere between being awake and asleep, which causes you to experience disturbingly real imagery, and makes it more likely you’ll remember those images or thoughts when you wake.

Why do we dream?

The purpose of dreams is still puzzling. Researchers have conducted studies, but there have been no definitive conclusions on why we dream. Psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud proposed that dreams are a reflection of our subconscious, revealing our unconscious desires, thoughts and motivations. Many modern specialists theorize everyday stress, anxiety and trauma may cause reoccurring bad dreams.

How do you stop nightmares?

While scientists are unsure what exactly causes nightmares, many people who experience them also report experiencing stress while awake, sleep deprivation, illness or continued use of or change in medications.

  • Get at least seven hours of uninterrupted sleep.
  • Try stress-relieving activities like yoga in the evening to wind down.
  • Try using sleeping apps to help you monitor and improve your sleep.
  • Maintain a sleep journal by noting any medication you take, sleep disturbances, how you’re feeling when you wake, and the frequency of nightmares. This can help you map patterns to pinpoint possible causes.
  • You can also seek help from a therapist or doctor. BCBST members can use the “Find a Doctor” tool on bcbst.com to find in-network providers.

Cognitive-behavior treatment

One form of treatment that has been relatively successful for those with recurring nightmares is Image Rehearsal Therapy (IRT). This cognitive-behavior treatment works by:

  • Creating non-frightening endings for repeated nightmares
  • Writing down and rehearsing those bad dreams with new scenarios, and
  • Then keeping track of your nightmares to see if the IRT is working.

As inexplicable and troubling as nightmares can be, there is good news: some sleep researchers theorize that bad dreams may actually be an emotional processing mechanism. So as you sleep, you might be working through your innermost worries, sorting through the worst parts of your day and learning how to let them go.

Kristine San Mateo

Kristine San Mateo

Kristine San Mateo is a writer who brings stories to life for wellness brands as well as sports teams, coffee, tourism and the automotive industry across the world. She currently resides in Nashville, TN.

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WellTuned provides inspiration and practical advice for healthy living.
WellTuned does not offer medical advice. Any personal health questions should be addressed to your doctor.

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