The word “mare” comes from old English and refers to a mythological demon who torments people with frightening dreams, which really says it all. Although nightmares can be very unpleasant, they’re usually just part of life – as long as they happen sporadically. It’s a different situation if they occur more frequently and start disrupting your life. No matter how much they trouble you, there are ways to make them less of a torment.

Jump directly to: How to prevent nightmares – Check-list for sweet dreams

When do nightmares occur in the sleep cycle?

Dreams – both good and bad – tend to happen as we emerge from rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. It’s the sleep phase in which we do most of our dreaming. Since the REM sleep stretches become longer as the night progresses, you often find that nightmares happen in the early hours, which is why so many people experience bad morning dreams. Unfortunately, it seems we are more likely to remember nightmares than more pleasant dreams.

Same old story – The most common nightmares

First, everybody has experienced nightmares in their lifetime. However, children have nightmares much more often than adults, and there is evidence that adolescent girls are the ones who are hardest hit by disturbing dreams.

That being said, researchers at the University of Montreal have found that physical aggression is the theme of about half of all nightmares. According to the study, there are ten more standard storylines for nightmares, including disaster scenarios, insect encounters and interpersonal conflicts. But sometimes the storyline is more subtle, simply involving a vague feeling of threat or an ominous atmosphere.

Fear is perhaps the emotion most associated with nightmares, but we are just as likely to experience feelings of helplessness, guilt, anxiety or sadness. Whatever the emotion, it often takes a while before we are able to shake it off after waking up.

What causes bad dreams?

Exactly why we have to endure these tormenting experiences hasn’t been established. There are, however, several theories about why we dream at all:

  • Some scientists believe that dreams and nightmares allow our minds to process emotions and challenges we face during the day or reflect on previous experiences.
  • Others think that nightmares are evolution’s way of preparing us for future-threatening situations, a response to fear or trauma.

Why do I keep having nightmares? – Find the bad dream culprit

Frequent nightmares can be triggered by many different things, and dealing with the underlying cause is very likely to help you sleep more soundly: 

  • Severe stress and anxiety: as said, bad experiences can lead to nightmares at night.
  • Drugs and medications: some that affect the nervous system are associated with a higher risk of bad dreams. The withdrawal of some medications suppressing REM sleep can also lead to them. 
  • Migraines: some studies suggest that bad dreams can occur during a migraine episode or prior to the onset of a new episode. However, research is still ongoing to better define this connection. 
  • Sleep deprivation – the REM rebound can trigger nightmares and vivid dreams
  • Experiencing recurring episodes during childhood.
  • Mental health conditions – especially those individuals with PTSD, depression, and bipolar disorder. This can also contribute to insomnia, as it’s the only way to avoid them. 
  • A genetic component may play a role in making people more vulnerable to experiencing nightmares more frequently. 
  • Other sleep disorders such as sleep apnea or insomnia may also contribute to bad dreams and fragmented sleep. 

If nightmares interrupt your sleep on a regular basis and affect your daily life it’s considered a disorder and the recommendation is to see a doctor. Apart from being unpleasant, nightmares can lead to sleep deprivation, which in turn can also have a negative impact on your overall health.

How to prevent nightmares – Check-list for sweet dreams

If you only have sporadic nightmares and you know of no apparent cause, you may choose to leave it at that and endure the occasional terrifying night. You can also decide to elevate the quality of your sleep to a level where you just might be able to avoid bad dreams altogether. If this sounds appealing, there are a number of actions you can take: 

  1. Sleep comfortably. An ergonomic bed can do wonders. 
  2. Aim for a regular sleep routine. Don’t stay up too late and go to bed at around the same time every night.
  3. Set up an optimal sleep environment. Create a pleasant and inviting atmosphere free from clutter and stressful elements. A nice fragrance or even fresh flowers can have a soothing effect. 
  4. Wind down before you go to sleep. A good book tends to be a better bedtime story than a dramatic TV series. Don’t bring work to bed – instead, journal and write down your worries. 
  5. Don’t drink and sleep. Avoid coffee and alcohol, as well as other stimulating beverages like energy drinks, soft drinks and black tea before sleeping. Skip nicotine as well.
  6. Don’t eat and sleep. A good recipe for sleeping soundly is to avoid having dinner right before bedtime. You don’t want to get your metabolism going, as it has a tendency to activate the brain.
  7. Talk about it. If something’s troubling you, try talking it through with someone so that you can put it behind you before you go to bed.
  8. Exercise daily. Regular physical activity makes for sleeping more soundly. An evening walk is a good way to end the day.
  9. Talk to your healthcare provider if nightmares have started with new medication

In general, creating a comforting sleep environment will help keep your nightmares away; set an adequate temperature and block out excess light and noise. And if you need extra support to relax your body, Sleep Cycle’s sound library with music, meditation and sleep stories will provide you that peace of mind that facilitates good sleep (without nightmares).