Nightmares are normal, but when dreams result in intense anxiety or terror and recur often, they can become an unbearable sleep disorder.
A nightmare is a dream that occurs during rapid eye movement (REM) sleep that results in feelings of extreme anxiety, strong fear, distress, or terror. This unwelcome experience usually occurs late in the night and in most cases, it awakens the sleeper, who is likely to remember most of the dream’s content.
Nightmares are common – typically, there is nothing to worry about if someone has an occasional nightmare. Psychology Today says most nightmares may be a normal reaction to stress. In fact, some clinicians believe nightmares help people in working through disturbing and upsetting circumstances or events.
However, nightmares may develop into a problem if they are often and they disrupt a person’s sleep or cause him or her to fear going to sleep. Nightmares that frequently occur become a disorder when they harm relationships and interfere with work, and other important areas of life. If nightmares reach this level, they are referred to as a nightmare disorder (formerly known as dream anxiety disorder) or “repeated nightmares.”
According to the Mayo Clinic, a diagnosis of a nightmare disorder is only made when nightmares cause ongoing problems or distress with daytime functioning.
Nightmares can begin in children between 3 and 6 years old and usually lessen after about age 10. Girls and boys appear to have nightmares in equal numbers until they reach age 13. At age 13, girls tend to have more nightmares than boys do.
However, some people have nightmares when they reach adulthood. Many factors are attributed to causing nightmares, including stress, trauma, certain medication, scary movies, or books, sleep deprivation, and substance abuse.
For example, alcohol and illegal drug use or withdrawal can prompt nightmares. In addition, reading a scary book or watching a frightening movie, especially before retiring to bed, can bring about nightmares.
Sometimes the day-by-day stresses of life — problems at work, school, or home — can trigger nightmares. Major life changes, like moving or the death of a loved one, can be a trigger, as well.
Nightmares are most common after a traumatic event, an injury, or accident, especially for people who suffer with post-traumatic stress disorder.
Schedule changes that cause irregular waking and sleeping times, or that disrupt or decrease the amount of sleep, can amplify the likelihood of having nightmares.
Some drugs, including smoking cessation medication, certain antidepressants, blood pressure prescriptions, beta-blockers, and drugs used to treat Parkinson’s disease, can trigger nightmarish dreams.
Humans spend more than two hours each night dreaming. However, scientists don’t know much about why or how people dream.
Dr. Sigmund Freud, an Austrian neurologist, now known as the father of psychoanalysis, believed dreaming was a “safety valve” for unconscious desires. Only after 1953 did scientists begin studying dreaming and sleeping carefully. It was during this time that researchers first described REM in sleeping infants. The researchers found that the odd, illogical experiences humans call dreams usually occur during the REM part of sleep.
For individuals who suspect stress or anxiety as a cause of their nightmares, they should seek out the support of relatives and friends. Talking to someone is extremely helpful.
Medical professionals also recommend following a regular fitness routine, including aerobic exercise.
Regular exercise helps in falling asleep faster, as well as experiencing a deeper sleep and a refreshing feeling after waking up. Relaxation therapy and techniques that help reduce muscle tension are also natural remedies capable of suppressing and reducing anxiety.
Avoiding caffeine and other stimulants as well as keeping away from long-term use of tranquilizers will also help in shunning nightmares.
A person should contact his or her doctor or healthcare provider if nightmares started shortly after beginning a new medication.
Disrupting a scheduled sleeping pattern may lead to insomnia. So, going to bed at a set time each night and getting up at the same time each morning is highly recommended. In fact, sleeping in on weekends actually makes it harder to wake up early Monday morning, because it resets a person’s sleep cycle for waking up later.
Before going to bed, some relaxation techniques, such as taking a warm bath, practicing deep breathing, or meditation may help some individuals avoid having nightmares. Remember, a consistent bedtime routine is important.
A healthcare provider may recommend a sleep specialist who can perform a sleep study, or polysomnography, if treatment choices that address anxiety and stress, substance use, and side effects of medication don’t resolve recurring nightmares.
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