Types Of Nightmares And How To Deal With Them

By Michael Puskar

Updated November 20, 2019

Reviewer Lauren Guilbeault

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Nightmares can be extremely distressing - both while you are sleeping and when you wake up. They may be so frightening that you resist sleeping. In addition to the effects of losing sleep, nightmares can raise your heart rate and blood pressure, and they may cause other serious health concerns. They may even put your mental health in danger. If you're having persistent, terrifying nightmares, then you need to find out what's causing them, so you can learn how to rest more peacefully.

Does Everyone Have Nightmares?

Everyone dreams. It's just the way the brain works. It's hard to say if every single person has had nightmares, though. Certainly, having occasional nightmares is common. In fact, CNN reported that 85% of adults said they had at least one nightmare in the past year. Up to 29% of respondents reported having nightmares at least once a month. If you have a bad dream occasionally, it's probably nothing to be concerned about. If, on the other hand, you have nightmares frequently, you need to address them before they become or create a significant problem in your life.

Many years ago, it was believed that nightmares were caused by evil spirits, but nowadays, we know this is not the case. In this article, you will learn more about what can cause different types of nightmares, as well what you can do to alleviate negative symptoms and prevent them from happening as often.

Quotes About Nightmares

From ancient to modern times, quotes about nightmares have been featured in many literary works. The following quotes, some in fiction books and some presented as fact, can give you a glimpse of the prevalence of nightmares throughout history, as well as several different attitudes towards them.

  • "Like a spider, he is carrying me seaward step by step - a nightmare, a black nightmare!" ~Aeschylus, Suppliant Women, Greek tragedy from 5th Century B.C.E.
  • "Thou shalt not be afraid of the terror by night;" ~Psalms 91:5, KJV Bible
  • "Unfortunately, a superabundance of dreams is paid for by a growing potential for nightmares." ~Peter Ustinov
  • "I overcame the nightmares because of my dreams." ~Jonas Salk
  • "In nightmares, we can think the worst. That's what they're for, I guess." ~Stephen King, It
  • "I drag myself out of nightmares each morning and find there is no relief in waking." ~Suzanne Collins, Mockingjay

Are Nightmares Dangerous To Your Health?

Nightmares can be so intense that we wake up feeling we have narrowly escaped death. Our heart may be racing, and we may be breathing rapidly. This results from a combination of emotional stress- caused by the nightmare-, as well as our physical reaction to it. They aren't likely to cause any immediate harmful effects. However, there is evidence that nightmares affect both our physical and mental health. If you have nightmares often enough, you may become sleep deprived. Sleep deprivation can contribute to heart disease or obesity-related diseases. Sleep deprivation can also increase depression or anxiety and exacerbate other mental health conditions.

Can You Die As A Direct Result Of A Nightmare?

A popular notion is that when you die in a dream, you die in real life as well. It's possible that everybody dies in their nightmares at one time or another. In truth, there is absolutely no evidence that people ever do die as the result of a nightmare.

There is, however, a genetic disease called Sudden Unexpected Nocturnal Death Syndrome that can cause people of any age to die in their sleep. However, there's no evidence that death from this disease is related to nightmares. Scientists believe that it happens because the heart is slowed down when we sleep, causing its electrical signals to weaken, which makes those individuals with the genetic predisposition vulnerable to dying in their sleep.

Although it's highly unlikely you'll die because of a nightmare, there is one problem associated with nightmares that can indeed lead to death. People who are depressed and have frequent nightmares are more likely to commit suicide during their waking hours. Because of this if you are depressed, it's crucial that you seek help in learning how to avoid nightmares as soon as possible.

What Causes Nightmares?

So, why do we have nightmares, anyway? There are many different reasons that we have nightmares. Some of them are related to medical conditions, while others have more to do with psychological stress. Sometimes, they seem to come from nowhere and resolve quickly, but for some people, nightmares happen every night. If you wonder, 'Why do I have nightmares?"' the following possibilities are worth exploring:

  • Sleep apnea
  • PTSD
  • Eating late at night
  • Eating spicy foods
  • Taking certain antidepressants
  • Using narcotics
  • Taking certain blood pressure medications
  • Withdrawal from prescription medications, alcohol, or street drugs
  • Sleep deprivation
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Restless legs syndrome
  • Nightmare disorder
  • Feelings of guilt
  • Major life changes
  • Deep regret
  • Watching horror films

Types of Nightmares

While nightmares vary from person to person, there are some common plots of nightmares. Some of the most common nightmares include:

  • That you are being chased by something that could kill you
  • That you're naked in public
  • That you need to relieve yourself but can't find a toilet
  • That you have to take a test but haven't prepared for it
  • That you're falling
  • That you're in a car, truck, or bus that's out of control
  • That you're extremely late for a very important meeting or event

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Regardless of the content of your nightmares, having nightmares every night is a significant problem you need to address. Even if you don't have frequent nightmares, you may have bad dreams that affect your daytime functioning. To understand whether you have nightmares that need to be addressed, consider this list of types of nightmares.

Single-Occurrence Nightmares

Having a nightmare once a year or so shouldn't worry you at all. Even if you have nightmares once a month, you're still not likely to suffer any ill effects. Recently, some experts have even suggested that the occasional nightmare might even be helpful because it is one way to process a stressful but non-traumatic event that happened during the day.

Frequent Nightmares

When nightmares become frequent, they can begin to affect your sleep and health. They can happen either due to psychological or physical reasons. If you have chronic nightmares, it's important to see a doctor first to ensure a medical problem isn't causing your terrifying dreams. If you still don't have an answer, a psychologist or psychiatrist can identify any psychological reasons behind the nightmares.

Recurring Nightmares

Recurring nightmares are scary dreams that include the same dream content night after night. Although there may be some small differences, the same people may be involved in the same activities each time. You may dream of the same danger every night. Recurring nightmares are a sign that you have some unresolved psychological issue that you've never completely dealt with. In this case, seeing a counselor can give you the opportunity to work through the event or situation behind the bad dreams to help put it behind you.

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Nightmares During Pregnancy

It isn't surprising that women commonly experience nightmares during pregnancy. After all, pregnancy is a time of uncertainty and upheaval. In fact, for this same reason, the woman's partner may have nightmares too. Some of the most common pregnancy dreams include:

  • Nightmares about birth, including giving birth publicly
  • Nightmares about giving birth to something unexpected, such as an animal or inanimate object
  • Nightmares that the baby is hideously deformed
  • Nightmares about being trapped
  • Nightmares about drowning
  • Nightmares about forgetting the baby and leaving it unprotected
  • Nightmares that you or your baby are being physically harmed

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One thing to remember about pregnancy nightmares is that a few nightmares are nothing to worry about. They can't predict the future, but they can help you face current fears. Having some nightmares during pregnancy is to be expected, as you process what is happening to you during the pregnancy and what is about to happen to you as a parent. However, if the nightmares recur or cause you severe emotional distress, you need to address them.

PTSD Nightmares

Nightmares are such an integral part of post-traumatic stress disorder that they are one of the most common symptoms. PTSD nightmares are often filled with images of a traumatic event. You may have trouble waking up completely, and you may even have waking nightmares that affect your daytime behavior. If you are having nightmares related to PTSD, it is an urgent problem you need help with right away.

Waking Nightmares

In a condition called sleep paralysis, you go through a short period of waking nightmares just before you fall asleep or wake up. Scientists suggest that these 'nightmares' aren't nightmares at all, but instead they are hallucinations caused by lying on your back. They rarely happen to anyone over 30, but they can be quite distressing during the teen and young adult years. If you have this type of nightmare, you may be able to stop having them just by avoiding lying on your back to fall asleep.

Treatment for Nightmares

If your nightmares are causing you physical or emotional problems, you can go to a doctor or psychologist for treatment. The two main types of treatment available are medication for nightmares and psychological techniques to help you learn how to get rid of nightmares.

Medication for Nightmares

If you report severe, disturbing, and frequent nightmares to your doctor or psychiatrist, they might prescribe medication. Currently, the medication most used for nightmares is prazosin. Prazosin has been shown to decrease the intensity and frequency of nightmares. It has been used extensively for people with PTSD nightmares. Prazosin probably won't keep you from having any nightmares at all, but it can reduce them enough to allow you to function better in your daily life.

Psychological Techniques and Strategies for Nightmares

You can learn how to prevent nightmares in many cases by following a few simple dietary and lifestyle recommendations, such as getting enough sleep, not eating immediately prior to sleep, avoiding spicy foods, and taking care of medical problems as they arise.

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However, for people who have constant nightmares, the question is more about how to stop having them in general. No one wants to spend every night lost in nightmares. The good news is that you can learn psychological techniques and develop strategies that will help you reduce or eliminate nightmares.

  • Do systematic relaxation or meditation immediately before you sleep.
  • Let your worries go, when you get ready to sleep. Deal with difficult situations while you're awake.
  • Avoid going through stressful situations and events over and over in your mind, especially before bed.
  • Avoid seeing every disappointment or difficult situation as a catastrophe.
  • Don't assume that something that happens in a nightmare will happen in real life.
  • Imagery rehearsal is a technique in which you remember a recent dream while reminding yourself that it won't harm you or be too stressful for you.
  • Learn lucid dreaming. This is a skill in which you can control the outcome of the dream.
  • Keep a dream journal to write down and analyze your nightmares in terms of their metaphorical content.
  • Imagine a recent nightmare differently by changing the ending.

What To Do To Calm Down After Waking Up From A Nightmare

If you find yourself startled awake in the middle of the night from yet another nightmare, the following techniques can help calm you down and return to sleep.

  • Progressive muscle relaxation techniques
  • Come up with a mantra, for exmaple, "I was having a nightmare. It's not real. Nothing can hurt me now. I am safe."
  • Do breathing exercises
  • Journal
  • Watch something that makes you laugh or feel happy on TV/your phone

If These Steps Don't Work, Counseling Can Help

By following the tips mentioned above, you might be able to avoid or get rid of nightmares on your own. However, if you have a serious problem with nightmares, one you can't resolve alone, you can get help from a psychiatrist, who can prescribe medication for nightmares, or a psychologist, who can help you work through psychological issues and teach you techniques to reduce your nightmares.

For convenient, affordable help with nightmares and related psychological issues, you can talk to a counselor online at BetterHelp. With their assistance, you can stop the nightmares that are preventing you from getting relaxing, restful sleep. Below are some reviews of BetterHelp counselors, from people experiencing similar issues.

Counselor Reviews

"Giselle is a kind and compassionate listener. She promptly shared with me very useful tools and techniques that were instrumental in helping me improve my sleep and anxiety. I highly recommend Giselle as a Cognitive Behavior Therapist!"

"Rachia is not the type to just tell you what you want to hear. She has helped me face a lot whether I like it or not, and I do feel enlightened, stronger, and sleep better."

Conclusion

Hopefully, by following the advice provided to you in this article, you will be able to minimize the effects that nightmares have on your life. Whether you choose to do it on your own or with the help of a therapist, your deserve a good night's sleep. With the right techniques and tools, sleep can be disrupted less often by unwanted dreams. Take the first step today.


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