What Causes Nightmares?

April 26, 2011

I haven’t had nightmares for the longest time and I kind of miss having them. I know, it sounds like the weirdest thing, and I remember dreading going to sleep at night when I was a child because of these seemingly unavoidable bad dreams. But somehow, this longing for nightmares, or at least for some excitement in my sleep, prompted me to research on this common yet very vague subject.

What exactly is a nightmare? 

Apparently, we have some qualifiers.  Not all bad experiences during our sleep are nightmares.  In fact, those that cause screaming aren’t nightmares at all but night terrors, which are being experienced during the NREM (none rapid eye movement) phase of our sleep.  These kinds of dreams are rarely remembered when you wake up.  Nightmares are those dreams that do affect your emotions quite intensely but not to the extent of making one thrash about while sleeping.  They may cause abrupt awakening, though, since nightmares often involve instances of danger and horror.  And they are generally easier to recall as they happen during the REM phase, which occurs during the latter part of the sleep or before one awakes.

Why do we experience nightmares?

Sadly, even the latest studies can’t clearly pinpoint or explain the reason for nightmares, albeit every generation comes closer to getting to its roots.  So far, what we can be sure of is that nightmares are in causal relationship with the following: physical discomfort such as sleeping in an awkward position, over fatigue, and having an ailment; physiological factors such as anxiety, stress, and grief; involuntary increase in brain activity and body metabolism due to excessive food intake immediately before sleep; drug abuse or withdrawal; and sleep disorders such as sleep apnea.

Outlet for pressure

Among many possible causes, the most common are stress and anxiety.  This is for the reason that most people in different ages seem to have a share of these emotions.  As such, while we tend to suppress our weary feelings during the day, our body finds the resting moment at night as the suitable time to release all pressures we have previously suffered.  The graver case of nightmare-causing stress is what we call post-traumatic stress disorder in which a person revisits events in their past that brought them great trauma whether physically or emotionally.  These nightmares usually come in succession and sometimes require psychiatric therapy to assuage.



Emotions and genetics

Most causes of nightmares are emotion-related.  This is the reason children seem to experience more nightmares than adults (like in my case, my recollection of nightmares comes mostly from my childhood memories).  Childhood is the phase of our growth when we first develop our emotions and embrace different types of it. However, studies also show that nightmares can be genetic, that is, when somebody is prone to having nightmares or known to have such sleeping disorders, tendency is either their future offspring will inherit this disturbance or they already have a family history of such. And this is regardless of age or emotional stability.

Although there are indeed instances and stimuli that make a nightmare hard to shake, this sleeping disturbance can generally be prevented especially as we already know most of what triggers it.  All we have to do is try to lead a happier life – doing away with unnecessary stresses and worries that strain our emotions; a healthier life – avoiding abuse of food, drugs, or even our energy; and a more optimistic life – forgetting the past and moving on with the future. :)