A nightmare is a bad dream that brings out strong feelings of fear, terror, distress, or anxiety.
Nightmares usually begin before age 10 and are most often considered a normal part of childhood. They tend to be more common in girls than boys. Nightmares may be triggered by seemingly routine events, such as starting at a new school, taking a trip, or a mild illness in a parent.
Nightmares may continue into adulthood. They can be one way our brain deals with the stresses and fears of everyday life. One or more nightmares over a short period of time may be caused by:
- A major life event, such as the loss of a loved one or a traumatic event
- Increased stress at home or work
Nightmares may also be triggered by:
- A new drug prescribed by your health care provider
- Abrupt alcohol withdrawal
- Drinking too much alcohol
- Eating just before going to bed
- Illegal street drugs
- Illness with a fever
- Over-the-counter sleep aids and medicines
- Stopping certain drugs, such as sleeping pills or opioid pain pills
Repeated nightmares may also be a sign of:
- Breathing disorder in sleep (sleep apnea)
- Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which can occur after you have seen or experienced a traumatic event that involved the threat of injury or death
- More severe anxiety disorders or depression
- Sleep disorder (for example, narcolepsy or sleep terror disorder)
Night terrors. What are they and what do you do about them? I'm Dr. Alan Greene and want to discuss this common childhood issue with you called night terrors, or sometimes confusional arousals in some of the parenting books. What happens is a young child sometime shortly after bedtime will sit upright, open their eyes, start screaming, not recognize their parents, and seem extraordinarily frightened. What's going on? Well it turns out that they are not having a nightmare. They're not actually afraid of anything conscious that they can remember. And they're not awake. They're actually stuck between different stages of sleep and have this big adrenaline rush that is causing all of these behaviors that with no conscious thought going with it at all. Now the typical idea of what you should do during a night terror, confusional arousal, is perhaps hug the child. But sometimes it will make it even worse. My wife Cheryl came up with an idea for treating night terrors that I absolutely love. I've now heard from thousands of people that have tried it and it's the most effective thing I've ever come across. She reasoned that because night terrors happen at the same age where kids are learning to get this feeling of a full bladder up to their brains to wake them up, maybe it's a partial signal the bladder's full and not quite enough to wake them up. But it's enough to disrupt their sleep. So, she suggested taking a child, this happened with my youngest son, take them into the bathroom and see if they'll go to the bathroom. So, he woke up screaming. We were feeling bad about his screaming. Walked him into the bathroom. He didn't recognize us. He was screaming, eyes open, but he did for some reason recognize the toilet and went and immediately was calm again. So, we shared this with friends. We shared this with people online. Thousands of people have tried it. And for many, many children, that does indeed appear to be the cause and by far the most effective thing I've seen. You can also sometimes help by making bedtime and wake up time the same every day by keeping it very calm and the last hour before bed, maybe even a warm bath. And you can sort of do trial and error to what actually calms you child during a specific night terror.
Stress is a normal part of life. In small amounts, stress is good. It can motivate you and help you get more done. But too much stress can be harmful.
If you are under stress, ask for support from friends and relatives. Talking about what is on your mind can help.
Other tips include:
- Follow a regular fitness routine, with aerobic exercise, if possible. You will find that you will be able to fall asleep faster, sleep more deeply, and wake up feeling more refreshed.
- Limit caffeine and alcohol.
- Make more time for your personal interests and hobbies.
- Try relaxation techniques, such as guided imagery, listening to music, doing yoga, or meditating. With some practice, these techniques could help you reduce stress.
- Listen to your body when it tells you to slow down or take a break.
When to Contact a Medical Professional
Tell your provider if your nightmares started shortly after you began taking a new medicine. They will tell you if you should stop taking that medicine. DO NOT stop taking it before talking to your provider.
For nightmares caused by street drugs or regular alcohol use, ask for advice from your provider on the safest and most effective way to quit.
Also contact your provider if:
- You have nightmares more than once a week.
- Nightmares stop you from getting a good night's rest, or from keeping up with your daily activities for a long period.
What to Expect at Your Office Visit
Your provider will examine you and ask questions about the nightmares you are having. Next steps may include:
- Certain tests
- Changes in your medicines
- New medicines to help with some of your symptoms
- Referral to a mental health provider
Arnulf I. Nightmares and dream disturbances. In: Kryger M, Roth T, Dement WC, eds. Principles and Practice of Sleep Medicine. 6th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2017:chap 104.
Chokroverty S, Avidan AY. Sleep and its disorders. In: Daroff RB, Jankovic J, Mazziotta JC, Pomeroy SL, eds. Bradley's Neurology in Clinical Practice. 7th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2016:chap 102.
Pigeon WR, Mellman TA. Dreams and nightmares in posttraumatic stress disorder. In: Kryger M, Roth T, Dement WC, eds. Principles and Practice of Sleep Medicine. 6th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2017:chap 55.
Last reviewed on: 5/10/2020
Reviewed by: Fred K. Berger, MD, addiction and forensic psychiatrist, Scripps Memorial Hospital, La Jolla, CA. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, Brenda Conaway, Editorial Director, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.