Read below about nightmares, including causes, treatment options and remedies. Or get a personalized analysis of your nightmares from our A.I. health assistant. At Buoy, we build tools that help you know what’s wrong right now and how to get the right care.

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Nightmares Symptoms

It may surprise you to know that "nightmare" is actually a medical term and definitely not a laughing matter to some. It refers to a dream that is frightening enough to awaken the sleeper and leave him or her feeling anxious with a pounding heart. The word itself is centuries old and first referred to a mythical female spirit who would terrify people while they slept.

A nightmare is thought to be the mind's way of trying to sort through, or make sense of, traumatic or anxiety-provoking events. These events can be real, such as being the victim of a crime, or something that is actually harmless, like a horror movie.

Characteristics:

  • Nightmares are dreams that are intense enough to wake you from sleep. When you do wake up, you will feel frightened, anxious, or angry.
  • After a nightmare, you will often be wide-awake and recall the dream.
  • You will often have difficulty falling asleep again after the nightmare.

Duration:

  • If children over age 10 still suffer nightmares, the condition may continue into adulthood.
  • Among adults, nightmares tend to become less frequent as the person ages.

Who is most often affected by nightmares?

  • Children under age 10 seem to be most prone to nightmares.
  • Overall, women and girls tend to have more nightmares.
  • However, anyone can have a nightmare or even recurrent nightmares.

When are nightmares most likely to occur?

  • Nightmares most often occur after you've been asleep for at least a few hours.
  • Nightmares that occur soon after falling asleep tend to be more intense and disturbing, and you may not remember the details after you wake up.

Why are nightmares a concern?

  • A nightmare is not harmful in itself, but the underlying event or stress that caused it might be.
  • If your nightmares are causing sleep issues and making you drowsy during the day, this needs professional attention.
  • If you are sleepwalking and acting out a violent nightmare, this can be very dangerous both to you and to anyone else in your home.

Nightmares Causes Overview

Having nightmares can be a condition in itself, or actually a symptom of another illness. If nightmares are associated with some other condition, it will usually be an emotional, psychological, or medication-related disorder.

Emotional and psychological causes:

Medication causes:

  • Antidepressants.
  • Antihypertensives, which are medications to control blood pressure.
  • Medications used for Parkinson disease.
  • Illicit drug use, such as abusing prescription medication or using street drugs.
  • Alcoholism.

7 Potential Nightmares Causes

Disclaimer: The article does not replace an evaluation by a physician. Information on this page is provided as an information resource only, and is not to be used or relied on for any diagnostic or treatment purposes.

  1. 1.Mild Chronic Depression (Dysthymia)

    Dysthymia, also called persistent depressive disorder, is a form of depression that is chronic. The causes of dysthymia are complex, and often are a combination of biological, genetic, and environmental factors. Dysthymia can interfere with everyday life, and people with this condition report feeling loss of interest in their daily activities, sadness, hopelessness, and a lack of energy.

    Dysthymia can last indefinitely.

    Rarity:
    Uncommon
    Top Symptoms:
    fatigue, depressed mood, irritability, difficulty concentrating, impaired social or occupational functioning
    Symptoms that always occur with mild chronic depression (dysthymia):
    depressed mood
    Symptoms that never occur with mild chronic depression (dysthymia):
    severe sadness
    Urgency:
    Primary care doctor
  2. 2.Mental or Medical Condition Causing Thoughts of Suicide

    When experiencing thoughts of suicide, you should go immediately to the ER. Consider calling a suicide-prevention hotline, the number is 1 (800) 273-8255 and is available 24/7.

    Duration of this symptom depends on it's cause.

    Rarity:
    Uncommon
    Top Symptoms:
    thoughts of suicide, hearing voices or seeing things that aren't there, severe pelvis pain, chest pain, hard testicle lump
    Urgency:
    Hospital emergency room
  3. 3.Depression

    Depression is a mental disorder in which a person feels constantly sad, hopeless, discouraged, and loses interest in activities and life on more days than not. These symptoms interfere with daily life, work, and friendships.

    Depression's course is highly variable, and it may last weeks, months, or years.

    Rarity:
    Common
    Top Symptoms:
    fatigue, depressed mood, headache, anxiety, irritability
    Symptoms that always occur with depression:
    depressed mood
    Urgency:
    Primary care doctor

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  4. 4.Fibromyalgia

    Fibromyalgia is a disorder that causes widespread pain, tenderness, and fatigue.

    Fibromyalgia is generally a lifelong condition

    Rarity:
    Common
    Top Symptoms:
    fatigue, arthralgias or myalgias, anxiety, depressed mood, headache
    Symptoms that always occur with fibromyalgia:
    arthralgias or myalgias
    Urgency:
    Primary care doctor
  5. 5.Panic Disorder

    Panic disorder is a type of anxiety disorder. It causes panic attacks, which are sudden feelings of terror without true danger. One may feel as if they are losing control or have physical symptoms like sweating or a racing heart.

    Chronic with relapses

    Rarity:
    Common
    Top Symptoms:
    anxiety, abdominal pain (stomach ache), nausea, stomach bloating, depressed mood
    Symptoms that always occur with panic disorder:
    anxiety
    Symptoms that never occur with panic disorder:
    agoraphobia
    Urgency:
    Primary care doctor
  6. 6.Premenstrual Dysphoric Disorder

    Premenstrual dysmorphic disorder is a condition that occurs 5-11 days before menstruation that causes depression-like symptoms, where you have depression-like symptoms, irritability, and tension.

    Symptoms of premenstrual dysmorphic disorder can be managed with a healthy lifestyle. In severe cases, antidepressants may be useful.

    Rarity:
    Common
    Top Symptoms:
    fatigue, stomach bloating, anxiety, depressed mood, abdominal cramps (stomach cramps)
    Symptoms that always occur with premenstrual dysphoric disorder:
    impaired social or occupational functioning, symptoms of depression, anxiety and emotional lability
    Symptoms that never occur with premenstrual dysphoric disorder:
    constant sadness, post-menopausal
    Urgency:
    Primary care doctor
  7. 7.Obstructive Sleep Apnea

    Sleep apnea is a disorder in which the upper airway is obstructed during sleep, which causes poor sleep quality and frequent awakening.

    Sleep apnea is a lifelong condition but symptoms can be well managed with treatment.

    Rarity:
    Common
    Top Symptoms:
    fatigue, irritability, daytime sleepiness, trouble sleeping, sore throat
    Symptoms that always occur with obstructive sleep apnea:
    snoring or apneas
    Urgency:
    Primary care doctor

Nightmares Treatments and Relief

Seek immediate treatment from your doctor if you are sleepwalking during nightmares. If you are actually sitting up in bed or walking around while unconsciously, and violently, acting out the dream, there is real danger of harming yourself or others. This condition should prompt you to seek immediate help.

Schedule an appointment if:

  • You are waking up terrified from nightmares, sometimes to the point of thrashing or screaming, and don't remember what the dream was about.
  • You are having hallucinations or feelings of overpowering dread in addition to the nightmares.
  • Your nightmares are interfering with your sleep.

Remedies that you can do at home:

  • Making basic general improvements in nutrition, exercise, and sleep habits can help with overall quality of life and help to ease stress and anxiety.
  • Sleep hygiene, which means going to bed at about the same time each night in a darkened and quiet room, can aid in creating normal, restful sleep.
  • Stress management and relaxation techniques can be very helpful in creating normal sleep and reducing nightmares.
  • Children can be allowed to sleep with a nightlight and perhaps a favorite soft toy or blanket.

FAQs About Nightmares

Here are some frequently asked questions about nightmares.

Are nightmares a sign of stress?

Although we cannot say for sure what causes nightmares, we do know that many different medical conditions are associated with them. For instance, nightmares are more frequent in people during periods of high emotional stress. However, just because you have a nightmare does not mean that you are stressed, as anyone can have a nightmare at any time; they are just more common during periods of stress. If you are concerned that you are stressed, it may be more helpful to reflect on how you are feeling emotionally and possible sources of stress in your life.

What causes nightmares?

Nightmares are just scary versions of dreams and there is currently no consensus on why we dream. Thus, we are not sure what causes nightmares, though there are medical conditions that are clearly associated with them. Medical conditions and medications that alter your brain and psyche are most commonly seen with nightmares. These conditions include periods of high emotional stress, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), acute stress disorder, depression, and other psychiatric disorders.

What are night terrors?

Night terrors are a distinct condition from nightmares. Night terrors occur in a different phase of sleep than nightmares and occur predominantly in children. Affected children awake abruptly from sleep screaming and agitated with an expression of terror. Children will not respond during these episodes to any sort of comforting or calming. They typically will not remember the episode when they wake up as they might remember a nightmare.

Can certain medications cause nightmares?

Yes, many medications are known to cause nightmares. Specifically, medications for blood pressure, antidepressants, anti-Parkinson drugs, some antibiotics, and some stimulants may cause nightmares. Withdrawal of some drugs when you suddenly stop using them after a period of chronic use may also lead to nightmares. This can happen with certain antidepressants, alcohol, and benzodiazepines.

Can eating late at night cause nightmares?

The relationship between eating late and nightmares is not clear, however, it is known that eating right before bed can disrupt sleep. Dreams occur mostly during the REM (rapid eye movement) phase of sleep. Similar to how your memory is best for events that happened just recently, your recall of dreams is highest when you wake up during or soon after this phase of sleep. Waking up more frequently, as caused by late night eating, thus can make it more likely that you wake up during this stage with fresh memories of your dreams — whether they were good or nightmarish.

Questions Your Doctor May Ask About Nightmares

  • Q.Any fever today or during the last week?
  • Q.Have you been feeling more tired than usual, lethargic or fatigued despite sleeping a normal amount?
  • Q.Do you currently smoke?
  • Q.Have you lost your appetite recently?

If you've answered yes to one or more of these questions, try our nightmares symptom checker to find out more.

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Nightmares Symptom Checker Statistics

  • People who have experienced nightmares have also experienced:

    • 7% Fatigue
    • 5% Trouble Sleeping
    • 3% Anxiety
  • People who have experienced nightmares were most often matched with:

    • 12% Depression
    • 4% Mild Chronic Depression (Dysthymia)
    • 3% Mental or Medical Condition Causing Thoughts of Suicide
  • Source: Aggregated and anonymized results from visits to the Buoy AI health assistant (check it out by clicking on “Take Quiz”).

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