What causes nightmares - Scary realistic dreams


Sometimes we wake up terrified from a 
dream. These are the dreams that turned out bad. Most nightmares involve a threat or dangerous situation. What are nightmares, and what causes nightmares? Falling, being chased, paralysis, or the death of a family member or friend can be the most common theme of a bad vision.

Moreover, a nightmare can also include monsters and scary figures. They are vividly realistic and disturbing in sleep and can cause an individual to wake up suddenly. Bad dreams also make it harder to go back to sleep and result in anxiety, making our heart pound. It is most common in preschoolers age 3-6 yrs because their brain is pretty active and creative at this age. All other age categories also face nightmares but not as common as babies. 

More than 85% of adults report at least one nightmare a year, 8-29% have monthly nightmares, and 2-6% report weekly nightmares, and 10-50% of three to six-year-old experience nightmares, among which more than 80% of seven to nine-year-olds occasionally experience bad dreams.

When do nightmares occur?

Nightmares usually occur in the REM stage of sleep. In this stage, the brain waves are similar to when we are awake. Different events ranging from managing subconscious thoughts and sorting out memories to purely by random chemical signals are the reasons we dream. Physical aggression is more common, along with death, health, and threats. Men’s nightmares usually involve reality like disaster or war, whereas women’s nightmares involve personal conflicts.

What causes nightmares?

  • Daytime factors and specific disorders are known to affect our dreams. 
  • Stress and anxiety can trigger nightmares.
  • Scary movies or thrilling, suspenseful shows which lead to anxiety also cause nightmares. Sometimes visual imagery from media pops up in our dream contents. A study also found that about 90% of college students recalled a frightening TV, movie, or a real-life incident that affected their sleep. Some even claimed that it caused them to wake up, suddenly leading to anxiety attacks. 
  • Disturbing sounds and distorted images are the most prevalent types of phobia. 
  • Depression and PTSD increase the risk of having a nightmare.
  • Personality traits like dis-trustfulness, alienation, and emotional estrangement were more likely to experience chronic nightmares. People with creativity are more susceptible to nightmares. 
  • Temperature and comfort have an impact on our sleep content. 
  • Certain types of medication, particularly those that influence neurotransmitters, may control nightmare frequency. These include antidepressants, narcotics, as well as withdrawal from other drugs that affect REM sleep.
  • Other causes of a nightmare include sleep disorders like sleep apnea and restless leg syndrome.

A big meal before bed is known to result in nightmares, but it is a myth! There is no association of food with a dream. If you have a meal right before bed, your stomach is full and has to digest the food. It results in discomfort and a tummy ache, which can trigger bad dreams. 

Can nightmares kill you?

A nightmare can only kill you in your sleep with a heart attack. It is a myth-based on a real-life phenomenon of a real-life murderous villain. In the 1970s, the Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge regime killed millions of Cambodians. Some refugees fled to the United States. During the system, some young men were reluctant to sleep, while some died from heart attacks while sleeping. The deaths did not stop with Cambodian refugees. Brugada syndrome, which is a genetic condition, was responsible for these sleep deaths

How to differentiate dreams and reality?

It’s sometimes challenging to differentiate reality from a nightmare. A region called Wernicke’s area in the brain is associated with the understanding of spoken and written language. It is present in the temporal lobe on the left side of the brain. This region is dormant during sleep. So, the next time you fear nightmares and want to ensure that it is a dream, write something down on a sheet of paper and place it where you watch it even while sleeping. If you are unable to read it, it means the Wernicke’s region is not active, and you are asleep.

Related: What is lucid dreaming? Will it help control your vision?

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