If you’ve ever experienced nightmares on a regular basis, then you’re not alone. A nightmare is a type of dream that is usually disturbing and frightening. They are often brief, but they can feel as if they last forever. Nightmares tend to occur during the REM (rapid eye movement) stage of your sleep cycle when brain activity is highest. Almost everyone has occasional nightmares from time to time; it’s when these dreams recur almost every night that they become concerning. In this article, we explain why you have nightmares every night and what you can do about it.
Why Do I Have Nightmares Every Night?
I used to have nightmares every night. They were about a man who was chasing me. He would always catch me and he would pull out a knife and threaten to kill me if I didn’t do what he asked me to do. The dream ended with him killing my parents and then he would kill me too. I was screaming in my sleep but no one could hear me.
What Are Nightmares?
A nightmare is an unpleasant dream that occurs during REM sleep. Nightmares can be frightening, but they’re not dangerous. They wake you up from a deep sleep, usually after about an hour or two of sleep. Nightmares are often visual, with a strong sense of realism, but they may also involve sounds, smells, and feelings. The content of nightmares varies widely among individuals, but they’re often associated with anxiety, stress, grief, or anger. Some common nightmare themes include being chased, being threatened, losing control, being naked in public, being attacked, being injured, failing an exam, making a mistake, being late for an important event, or losing a loved one.
How Often Do People Have Nightmares?
- Approximately 30% of people experience nightmares every night.
- About half of all people have nightmares at least occasionally.
- Nightmares tend to occur more often during the first two years after a traumatic event, or if the person has depression, anxiety, or another mental illness.
- Nightmares are more common in women than men, but they’re not related to gender differences in sleep-related behaviors (e.g., napping).
- Nightmares can occur before or after a stressful event, but they can also occur without a trigger at all (e.g., because of an inherited tendency).
- In children and adolescents, nightmares tend to be associated with anxiety and stress about schoolwork or tests rather than with stress about social situations (e.g., being teased by classmates).
- Nightmares are not caused by psychological disorders like anxiety; rather they’re caused by a malfunctioning brain that’s producing unpleasant dreams during REM sleep.
- Nightmares can be treated with medicine and counseling, but they’re not caused by psychological disorders like anxiety; rather they’re caused by a malfunctioning brain that’s producing unpleasant dreams during REM sleep.
- Dreams can help you learn about your past, but nightmares are a sign of a physical problem in the brain that needs to be fixed (e.g., seizures).
- Nightmares are a normal part of life and don’t have to be treated with medicine or counseling. They should just be accepted, as they are not dangerous and usually don’t last too long.
What To Do If We Have Nightmares Every Night?
- Relax. Don’t try to avoid or escape from the nightmare. Don’t wake yourself up by trying to move around, and don’t try to wake someone else up.
- Breathe slowly and deeply through your nose, hold for a few seconds, then breathe out through pursed lips as you count slowly to five.
- Try not to think about the nightmare as you fall asleep again, but don’t avoid dreaming about it either. Sometimes it helps to note the time of day when the nightmare occurs so that you can be aware of it if it happens again in the future.
- If you have a nightmare that is more frightening than usual, try to remember it and let yourself feel the fear. Don’t try to suppress the fear or change it. Let yourself experience the fear and don’t fight it—instead, use it as a way to deepen your understanding of the emotion, and how you can work with it in positive ways.
- Try to remember what triggered the nightmare so that you can avoid those triggers in the future. For example, if your nightmare was caused by a certain situation or person, then avoid that situation or person in real life as well as in your dreams.
- Some people find that they can stop having nightmares by imagining themselves doing something enjoyable instead of thinking about what they’re afraid of when they fall asleep at night as I did!
- If you want to learn more about the science of dreaming and the role that dreams play in our lives, you might like to read my book, “Dreams in the Brain.”
- Don’t try to ignore or suppress your dreams or nightmares. Instead, try to understand them and see them as valuable sources of information about yourself and your life.
- Be gentle with yourself if a nightmare happens despite your efforts at self-acceptance and self-understanding. Don’t beat yourself up for having a nightmare—instead, accept it and let it be a part of who you are.
- Try to use your nightmare as a way to understand your feelings and thoughts better, so that you can work with them in healthy ways.
If you’re having nightmares every night, it’s important to figure out why and then take steps to fix the problem. If the nightmares are caused by sleep deprivation, you may be able to solve the problem by getting more sleep. If they’re caused by anxiety, you’ll want to deal with this as soon as possible. If they’re caused by a health problem, you’ll need to get that under control as soon as possible.