Nearly every person gets a nightmare or two in their lifetime. For others, nightmares are a recurring event that rob them of precious sleep and proper rest, which could leave them in a daze the following day.
Nightmares are disturbing dreams often related to negative feelings such as anxiety or fear that jolts or suddenly awakens a person from sound sleep.
It is common for children to have nightmares too, but the occasional nightmare can quite often be traced back to a scary movie, story, cartoon, or a sudden fright.
Nightmares tend to decrease once children reach 10 years. However, they sometimes appear when children reach puberty, more so in girls than boys.
They are brief, but may happen several times a night, normally in the second half of your sleep pattern, causing bouts of wakefulness as returning to sleep can be difficult. Though the exact cause of nightmares is unknown, they usually occur during the REM (rapid eye movement) stage of sleep.
Nightmares may have these related themes:
- dreams related to threats or your safety, e.g., someone trying to break into your bedroom, or being left alone in the pitch dark.
- dreams related to a real situation which becomes more stressful as the dream progresses, e.g., imminent death in a family when someone is in critical condition in a hospital.
- dreams that you can remember and recall vivid details, e.g., an unpleasant experience that has been tucked away in your memory but is now emerging in your mind.
- dreams that cause increased heartrate or leave you in a cold sweat, e.g., someone armed with a knife keeps chasing you down a dark alley.
Medically, nightmares are considered a sleeping disorder when the sufferer experiences:
- distress (bad stress) the following day.
- lack of sufficient sleep.
- anxiousness and fear that the next night’s sleep will also be plagued with nightmares.
- problems functioning properly at work, school or social situations.
- reduced level or lack of concentration.
- a fear of the dark
Nightmare disorder in children can cause distress and disrupt the lives of the parents or child care providers. It has also been noted that children who get frequent nightmares also suffer from bedwetting.
An occasional nightmare shouldn’t be cause for concern, but nightmares that happen frequently need to be brought to a doctor’s attention. Constant disruption of sleep, fear of sleeping and daytime disruption should be attended to as early as possible, in order that other medical issues related to sleep deprivation can be prevented.
Nightmares can be triggered by various environmental and psychological factors including:
- Sleep deprivation – irregular sleeping and waking patterns. Insomnia sufferers have an increased risk of getting nightmares.
- Trauma – after an injury, accident, physical or sexual abuse, PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder).
- Stress – unhappiness at work or at school, a death of a loved one, moving to a new town.
- Medications – like antidepressants or beta blockers to reduce blood pressure, are known to trigger nightmares.
- Substance abuse – either alcohol or drug withdrawal symptoms can trigger hallucinations and nightmares.
- Scary situations – reading scary books or watching scary movies before bedtime have been linked to nightmares, especially so in children.
When recurrent nightmares interfere with daily activities, your doctor will ask you various questions related to your nightmares, e.g.:
- the onset of your nightmares
- family history of nightmares
- occurrence, e.g., frequency
- sleep problems
- recollection of what the nightmare was about
and advise you of the following possible treatment options:
- Change of medication – for an underlying medical problem.
- Stress reducing treatment – e.g., counselling, psychiatric therapy
- Medication – though rarely used in treatment of nightmares, medication can be used to treat PTSD sufferers who have severe nightmares.
Home remedies may include:
- repeated reassurance to a person suffering from nightmares.
- talking about the “bad dream” with the child.
- establishing a regular and relaxing bedtime routine – no scary situations!
- listening to soothing music.
- light meditation or devotional prayers.
- using a night light helps reassure both children and adults.
This article has provided general information on nightmares, why they happen and possible general treatment options. All information given should not be taken as medical advice, and readers are always advised to consult their doctors for further information.
17th August 16:50 2020