All You Need to Know About Nightmares

Sleepless man lying in bed.

Nightmares are not the same as bad dreams, from a clinical viewpoint. (Image: Marcos Calvo Mesa via Dreamstime)

There is hardly any person who does not dream while sleeping. Dreams can be of many types and psychologists have tried to interpret their roots and nuances for years. Yet, everything about dreams is not known or understood fully. Some dreams are pleasant while others can be quite scary. Most people experience bad dreams, but it is important to know how to differentiate nightmares from heavy dreams. In some cases, victims of these episodes find it hard to sleep peacefully and their recurrence affects their mental health. 

So what are nightmares?

They are not the same as bad dreams, from a clinical viewpoint. While both feature stuff that disturbs the victim, only a nightmare makes you wake up. They are like vivid dreams with content that can be bothersome, upsetting, bizarre, and even menacing.

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Episodes typically occur during the REM stage of sleep. After waking up, the nightmare victims can recall what they experienced. They report waking up in a sweat.

These are not similar to sleep terrors. In the latter, the victims become agitated and frightened when they are asleep. It occurs during the NREM sleep phase and usually does not lead to full awakening. 

What is a nightmare disorder then?

Having nightmares once in a while is not uncommon, but when you experience them quite often, it can be a case of nightmare disorder. People coping with this syndrome find it hard to stay peaceful and their sleeping cycle is affected badly.

Should you worry?

Psychologists are of the view that both adults and kids can experience these states from time to time. Nightmare disorder is not that common though. Frequent episodes affect kids more than adults. Most kids suffering from them are below 6 years old, but there can be some exceptions. 

Frequent nightmares affect kids more than adults.
Frequent nightmares affect kids more than adults. (Image: Fizkes via Dreamstime)

What is the root cause?

It is hard to explain why people experience nightmares. These are debates regarding the root cause but it is generally believed that they occur when your mind is overly stressed and that it is a response to deep-rooted trauma and fear. Extensive studies should be carried out to figure out the roots. 

There are some reasons that may trigger them in people. These are:

  • Deep levels of stress and anxiety
  • Certain drugs and medications
  • Mental health conditions
  • Sleep deprivation
  • Withdrawal from certain medications

Some studies have hinted at a link between obstructive sleep apnea and nightmares, but there are counter theories as well. There are studies that have hinted at people coping with genetic mental conditions being more prone to them than others.

How do they impact sleep?

Occasional episodes are not going to harm anyone, but recurring ones take a toll on the quality of sleep. People coping with nightmare disorder get less than usual sleep. After waking from a nightmare, it is common to find it hard to fall back asleep. It may make a person uncomfortable for a while, too.

Woman sitting at a desk in front of a laptop holding her glasses and looking sleepy.
People coping with nightmare disorder get less than the usual amount of sleep. (Image: Fizkes via Dreamstime)

When do you need medical aid?

Most people can cope with these episodes without seeking psychological or clinical aid. However, victims of nightmare disorder may need clinical help. If you experience them several times a week and find it is affecting your quality of sleep and lifestyle, seeking clinical assistance is prudent. Based on the condition, the doctor may ask you to refrain from using some medications. Psychotherapy may be needed to treat extreme cases. Sometimes, doctors also offer prescription medications. These may include some antidepressants or antipsychotic drugs.

What you can do to prevent this trauma?

While seeking medical aid is the last step in combating nightmares, you can take some other steps to enjoy peaceful, deep sleep.

  • Ensure the bedroom is clean and there are no distracting sounds or harsh light
  • Adhere to a regular sleeping cycle
  • Avoid caffeine and alcohol after dinner
  • Use relaxation methodologies like meditation

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