Nightmares: When Fears Come to Life

Some people would say that, since the beginning of 2020, we are all living a nightmare. While that is up for interpretation, a team of researchers in Finland proved that the current pandemic had infected most people’s dreams with anxiety and terrors. They’ve discovered shared apocalyptic imagery in respondents and linked that with increased stress levels. 

However, nightmares existed before the coronavirus outbreak, and they will exist long after it is behind us. If you are struggling with persisting bad dreams that cause emotions such as anger, fear, sadness, guilt, and anxiety, you’re in the right place. In this article, you’ll find everything you need to know about the cause, diagnosis, and treatment. 

Difference between Nightmares and Night Terrors

For starters, let’s dig into the difference between nightmares and night terrors so that we can know their effect and ways to recognize them. 

  • Night terrors are episodes that happen in the middle of the night, and they are characterized by intense fear, crying, and screaming. 

They are not dreams, because they happen in the non-REM stage. In most cases, they affect children between the ages of four to eight because they are still not able to process stressors. However, older children and adults can experience them as well. 

If they manifest as screaming and crying, night terrors are easy to identify, but they can also be manifested through incoherent mumbling, hyperventilation, sweating, and having a flushed face.

  • Nightmares are bad, scary dreams that can happen to everyone. Unlike night terrors, they happen during the REM phase of sleep when dreams are the most vivid. That is the reason why we can easily remember nightmares, but not night terrors.

What Causes Nightmares

Sometimes nightmares can happen spontaneously, so if you don’t have them frequently, it may just be that you are under some mild stress, or some lifestyle change has triggered a night of poor sleep.

Some potential causes of nightmares are late-night snacking, a change in medication (starting with a new treatment or withdrawal from old medication), alcohol, and sleep deprivation. When it comes to medications, some of them react with chemicals in the brain (narcotics, antidepressants, etc.) and can consequently increase nightmare frequency. 

There are, of course, psychological triggers. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is often followed by nightmares or sometimes even night terrors. Anxiety and depression may also be the cause of recurring nightmares. 

Finally, bad, terrifying dreams can be triggered by sleep disorders, such as sleep apnea and restless leg syndrome. Chronic nightmares can be a sleep disorder on their own if there is no other cause behind them.

The Consequences of Nightmares

If they are persistent, nightmares shouldn’t be taken lightly. The psychological effects, particularly, can be devastating, ultimately even jeopardizing life quality.  Frequent nightmares can make you afraid of falling asleep, which can, consequently, lead to sleep deprivation. The impact of sleep deprivation on our health can be significant. It can cause depression, obesity, and depression.

Diagnosing Nightmares

You had a nightmare. You know it, so, what’s there to diagnose? 

Well, if the nightmares are persistent, you should schedule an appointment with your doctor. Based on the information you provide regarding your habits, lifestyle, and stressors, the doctor will conclude what could be the cause. In some cases, you might be suggested to undergo a sleep study, during which your eye movement, breathing, blood oxygen levels, and muscle tension will be monitored. 

Coping with Nightmares

There’s no specific treatment for nightmares. In most cases, you need to go directly to the root of the problem. This can be done in consultation with your doctor, especially if specific medications or health conditions are the culprits. 

Stress-reduction techniques are always useful for improving sleep quality. Here are some things you can do:

  • Be physically active.
  • Avoid tranquilizers.
  • Limit your intake of caffeine and alcohol.
  • Practice relaxation techniques such as meditation, deep breathing, and yoga.
  • Establish a bedtime routine by going to bed and waking up every day at the same time.
  • Avoid blue light exposure before bedtime.
  • Choose reading a book or taking a warm bath before going to sleep instead of watching TV or scrolling the web.

Final word

If they persist, nightmares can be much more than just bad dreams. They can impact the quality of your life. Hopefully, this article has helped you identify your problem and find a solution. Sleep well.