6 Unexpected Causes of Nightmares and How to Prevent Them

We all know what a nightmare is. The bothersome, terrifying, and dysfunctional dreams can have a profoundly pervasive effect on our emotions, ripping us out of sleep.

Believe it or not, adult nightmares are rather rare; they’re a lot more common in kids. Adult nightmares can be caused by a variety of rather unexpected habits, as well as medications or underlying health conditions. We go through the 6 most common causes of bad dreams and how to remedy them.


Nightmares Alcohol

Drinking a few glasses of wine may make you sleepy, so you may believe that having a night out with drinks will only help your sleep. In reality, alcohol affects our sleep in a more complicated manner - at first, it will help you sleep deeper, but when blood alcohol levels start dropping, they make you a lighter sleeper.

Additionally, alcohol may increase the time of rapid eye movement sleep (REM). During this sleep cycle, vivid dreams and nightmares are much likelier. This way, consuming alcohol can contribute to nightmares.

The solution: Avoid drinking too much alcohol - keep the quantity to a glass or two of wine or one strong drink. In addition, make sure to wait at least 3-4 hours before going to bed.

Late-evening snacks

Nightmares woman experiencing nightmare

Digestion is hard work for the body, and this can clash with your body’s resting cycles. “This is because your body will be working hard to break down food and will send signals to your brain to be more active, which may trigger nightmares,” said Phil Lawlor, a sleep expert, to the Huffington Post

Any type of snack can lead to nightmares, but spicy and sweet foods have a higher risk of causing sleep problems. The same types of foods are also more likely to contribute to acid reflux, which can also interrupt your sleep.

The solution: If you can, avoid eating 2-3 hours before bed. But if you’re a habitual evening snacker, keep nighttime snacks small and choose foods and drinks known to promote sleep, such as chamomile tea, turkey, chicken, or a handful of nuts and seeds.

Stress and anxiety

Nightmares insomnia

Traumatic life events - both serious ones like a bad day at work or a major one like a car accident - increase your stress levels and promote worries, which often seep into your dreams too, provoking night terrors. The fear and stress may feel so overwhelming that you end up having nightmares.

This falls in line with scientific observations stating that people suffering from anxiety and persistent stress are predisposed to nightmare disorder, a condition where nightmares “happen often, cause distress, disrupt sleep, cause problems with daytime functioning or create fear of going to sleep,” according to the Mayo Clinic.

The solution: The good news is that these types of bad dreams tend to go away. Avoid scary or stress-inducing content before going to sleep. This means no scary books, horror movies, or news. 

To reduce dress levels right before bed, dedicate the time before bed (or any other free time available) to relax. Take a relaxing bath, a walk, meditate, listen to relaxing music, or do light yoga.

Medications and nutritional supplements

Nightmares Medications

Although scientists aren’t exactly sure how medications can cause nightmares, it’s not uncommon for drugs like antidepressants, blood pressure medications, Parkinson’s disease medications, beta-blockers, and medications used to help people quit smoking can all make you have more bad dreams. If you take melatonin to fall asleep, be mindful that this supplement can also trigger night terrors.

The solution: When it comes to medications and supplements, things can get tricky, as you may need these medications to manage your health. Therefore, it’s safest to discuss your concerns with your doctor and ask if you have any alternatives that wouldn’t trigger nightmares.

Mental health conditions

Nightmares anxious woman

Nightmares are a known symptom of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). PTSD sufferers frequently experience vibrant nightmares in which they relive the traumatic events that cause the condition. But patients who suffer from other mental health disorders, including bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, depression, and anxiety are more likely to have bad dreams as well.

The solution: Treating the mental health disorder is the best way to make the nightmares go away too. Also, remember that sleep deprivation itself can lead to nightmares. Try and get enough sleep, and the bad dreams may become less frequent or go away altogether.

Sleeping on the back

Nightmares Sleeping on the back

Sleeping on your back has many advantages: fewer wrinkles and less back pain, to name just a few. Unfortunately, this sleeping position also has some disadvantages, among which is a higher chance of bad dreams. Research suggests that back sleepers are more likely to experience breathing difficulties, which can cause nightmares of suffocating, being chased, or drowning.

The solution: Try changing your sleeping position. Experts recommend sleeping on your right side. It’s fine if you change sleep positions during the night, but try to sleep on the right side as often as you can.

Here are a few more tips to help you cope with a nightmare:

1. Recognize the nightmare and stop it.

When you’re having an unpleasant dream, look around at any mirrors or clocks. In a dream, they often look strange. You can also try to pinch your nose or scratch your skin. If you can’t feel anything, you’re dreaming.

Once you recognize that you’re dreaming, you can wake yourself up. Alternatively, you can try and change the ending of your dream on your own.

2. Start a dream journal.
Nightmares woman journaling

A dream diary can help you understand how your dreams are influencing you. Keep the journal on your bedside table, and write down all of your dreams - both good and bad - first thing in the morning. You can keep track of your total sleep time. Review the journal from time to time and try to understand why they’re causing you discomfort.

When should you see a doctor?

The occasional nightmare is no cause for concern, but recurrent night terrors can be a symptom of Nightmare Disorder or even an underlying brain condition, such as Alzheimer’s disease. See your doctor if you’re experiencing any of the following signs:

1. You experience nightmares more than once a week.
2. The bad dreams upset your mood, sleep, or day-to-day activities.
3. You started having nightmares once you started a new medication.

H/T: Huffington Post, Best Health, WebMD, Mayo Clinic

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