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What Causes Nightmares (and How to Stop Them)?

Humans have studied the causes of nightmares since we discovered REM sleep in 1953. Here is a deep look at this disturbing sleep phenomenon.

Written by Sarah Hill
July 28th, 2022

Humans have been studying the causes of nightmares ever since we discovered REM sleep in 1953. While this date might seem late, it’s actually the first time that researchers studied sleep in a laboratory.


In the English-speaking world, the earliest known definition of a nightmare comes from the Oxford English Dictionary, tracing back to the 1300s. It describes the phenomenon as a spirit that invokes suffocation in a sleeping person or animal.


With such a long and varied history, it’s no wonder why people keep wondering about what causes nightmares. 


Here is a comprehensive look at this disturbing sleep phenomenon.


What Is a Nightmare?



According to the Third Edition of the International Classification of Sleep Disorders (ICSD-3), nightmares are extended and extremely dysphoric dreams. The Fifth Edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) also uses this definition.


These vivid dreams usually involve scenarios that threaten a person’s survival, security, or physical integrity. Thus, they subconsciously exert effort to avoid them. 


When Do Nightmares Occur?


People normally associate nightmares when sleeping at night (hence the name). However, you can experience nightmares even in the early hours of the day, depending on your sleep schedule. 


Nightmares occur during rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, which is when your eyes move around quickly and randomly without sending visual signals to your brain. Experts also associate this stage of sleep with dreaming, making it integral to studying the causes of nightmares.


Common Causes of Nightmares


Nightmares occur in both children and adults. 


About 50% of children aged 3 to 6 and about 20% of children aged 6 to 12 experience frequent nightmares.


Meanwhile, between 50% and 85% of adults report getting nightmares occasionally



Many factors can cause nightmares. Some of the most common include:


– Stress Disorders:

Experts published research associating nightmares with high levels of worry. This study also suggests that people who experienced a major life stressor in the last 12 months are more likely to have nightmares. 


Stressors can involve a wide variety of life factors, but common occurrences include divorce, the death of a loved one, and minor violations of the law.


– Anxiety Disorders:

People with anxiety disorders are also more likely to have nightmares. 


In a 2014 study, researchers observed that adults who met generalized anxiety disorder criteria experienced more nightmares than participants without anxiety. Researchers also found evidence that these people’s bad dreams exacerbated the participants’ anxiety disorders.


– Trauma:

People who survived sexual abuse or combat experiences can experience recurrent nightmares. 


In fact, researchers reported that between 70% and 80% of adolescent and adult trauma survivors experience chronic nightmares. 


One study described how people who experienced multiple traumas in their lifetime were more likely to have nightmares as adults because of the post-traumatic stress disorders they develop.



Experts consider nightmares the hallmark of PTSD


One study featuring veterans with PTSD stated that 88% of the participants reported experiencing at least one nightmare a week. Meanwhile, civilians seeking treatment for PTSD also reported having nightmares, which ended up causing more sleep disorders.


– Sleep Disorders:

Sleep apnea and restless leg syndrome are some sleep disorders that can cause nightmares. 


According to the National Sleep Foundation, experts found a connection between obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) and having nightmares. Meanwhile, another study correlated having nightmares with periodic leg movement disorders.


– Schizophrenia:

Experts associate nightmares with this mental disorder. 


In particular, one study reported that nightmares occur more commonly in schizophrenic patients than members of the general population. These people’s nightmares also risk intensifying their psychotic symptoms during the day, affecting their daily functionality.


– Medications:

Nightmares can be side effects of some medications


Common medications associated with nightmares include specific antidepressants, beta-blockers, blood pressure medications, and drugs that target Parkinson’s disease. Medicines that help people quit smoking can also trigger nightmares.


– Substance Abuse:

People who abuse drugs or alcohol may experience frequent nightmares. 


For instance, some people might drink alcohol believing that it can improve their sleep because it makes them drowsy. However, alcohol worsens sleep quality, which can lead to vivid nightmares and bad dreams.


– Withdrawal:

Stopping the use of certain substances, such as alcohol or benzodiazepines, can also cause withdrawal nightmares. 


One study described how a participant experienced intense, hallucinatory nightmares during alcohol withdrawal.  


– Horror Media:

Finally, many people might commonly associate horror books and movies with having nightmares. 


Consuming horror media triggers your body’s fight or flight response, which can stay active even after you stop reading or watching the content. As a result, your mind might keep processing the fear-inducing content, leading to nightmares.


How to Stop Nightmares

If you have frequent nightmares, consider the following things you can do to stop them:


– Keep a Dream Journal:

Whether you like jotting down notes in your notebook or using a notepad app, recording your dreams can be a good way to understand them. You can even use your phone’s voice recorder when recounting the events of your recent nightmare if you can remember them. 


Taking note of what you dreamt about, how you felt, and the time and place of your dream can help you connect patterns in your nightmares.


– Identify and Avoid Triggers:

Once you make sense of what happens in your dreams, you can find clues in identifying possible triggers for your nightmares. 


For instance, seeing characters from various horror media terrorizing you in your sleep might be a signal to take a break from watching horror movies. Meanwhile, stress dreams of failing an exam could be a clue to put more effort into your studies.


– Create a Safe Space:

Nightmares usually revolve around settings that amplify the feeling of being trapped. Perhaps you are in a situation that limits your agency and control over things around you. 


Once you understand your situation, you can try taking control by identifying memories that counter those trapped feelings. Focusing on those thoughts may help you feel at ease and more comfortable, giving you more clarity once you wake up.


– Practice Relaxation Techniques:

As nightmares are related to anxiety and stress, learning how to relax more can help reduce their frequency. 


Try listening to calming music as you go to sleep to create a calm space in reality as you drift off to your dreams. Or you can practice deep breathing exercises, which experts suggest can improve sleep quality. 


Muscle relaxation exercises may also help prevent nightmares by reducing your body’s stress response.


Technology can also be incorporated to your relaxation routine. Sleep Meditation and wellness apps, like Sleepium, offer immersive, visually impactful, stories designed to downshift your body’s nervous system and induce sleep-promoting brainwaves. Studies have shown that the immersive qualities of virtual reality have even been effective for helping patients with phobias and PTSD


– See a Mental Health Professional:

If you have nightmares that are connected to underlying mental health issues, seeking a professional is the best decision you can make. 


You could approach a therapist to help you process the traumas that might be the root of your nightmares. These professionals can also help you develop healthy coping mechanisms to address them correctly.




The key to understanding how to stop nightmares is to first understand what causes them. Identifying the source of your nightmares can help you find the best solution to address them.


Nightmares go beyond mere scary dreams and can be signs of underlying mental illness or unresolved traumas. Something could be wrong physically or mentally, which makes it all the more important to find ways to prevent them from reoccurring.


While you can try self-help methods like keeping a dream journal or practicing meditation to make sense of your nightmares alone, consider seeking professional help if the nightmares affect your daily functions.

Additionally, newer self-guided solutions like virtual reality sleep meditation have helped increase the effectiveness of alleviating stress and anxiety, both of which are common contributors to nightmares.


Curious how VR Sleep Meditation works? Watch below:


About the Author

Sarah Hill, a former interactive TV news journalist at NBC, ABC, and CBS affiliates in Missouri, gained recognition for pioneering interactive news broadcasting using Google Hangouts. She is now the CEO of Healium, the world’s first biometrically powered VR channel, helping those with stress, anxiety, insomnia, and other struggles through biofeedback storytelling. With patents, clinical validation, and over seven million views, she has reshaped the landscape of immersive media.

Written by Sarah Hill
July 28th, 2022
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