Nightmares can be a terrifying experience, no matter your age. During a nightmare, the dreamer may experience a range of emotionally distressing emotions of fear, anxiety, guilt, sadness or terror. At times, these unsettling dreams may involve some life-or-death situation or a scenario that threatens the dreamer’s sense of security or wholeness. Sometimes, nightmares may cause restless sleep even during your waking hours, as you replay the events of the dream in your mind’s eye.

While many adults may experience an occasional bad dream and nightmare, persistent nightmares can become depleting and depressing. If you find that your disturbing dreams have turned chronic, you may have a mental health condition known as nightmare disorder, also called dream anxiety disorder. A nightmare every once in a while is expected, but every day or even every week can become depleting and depressing.

Read on to find out the symptoms, causes and treatment of this disorder.

What are the symptoms of nightmare disorder?

You may have nightmare disorder if you experience the below symptoms:

  • Daytime fatigue
  • Decreased emotional and physical well-being
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Low energy levels
  • Impaired quality of life
  • Fixation on the nightmares during waking hours
  • Increased anxiety during waking hours
  • Fear of going to sleep at night

What causes nightmare disorder?

Researchers don’t know what exactly causes nightmares. Studies suggest that nightmare disorder may be associated with a lot of internal as well as external factors. Fear-based memories that lie dormant during waking hours and become aroused during sleep.

Possible contributing factors that contribute to chronic nightmares are mentioned below:

  • Traumatic experiences during childhood such as severe injury, physical or sexual abuse
  • Sensitivity to negative stimuli
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Inability to suppress unwanted thoughts and feelings
  • Sleep apnea, or other physiological factors that disrupt sleep
  • Withdrawal from medications that suppress REM sleep
  • Drugs and medications that influence the reactions in your brain
  • Anxiety, chronic stress or depression

How to get rid of nightmares?

While you cannot control your nightmares, you can take steps during your waking hours to reframe your thoughts, improve your sleep and reduce your chances of having one:

Treat the underlying causes

The secret to avoiding nightmares is to identify the cause of the nightmares. Often high levels of stress, anxiety and depression can significantly trigger nightmares.  Once the cause is identified, self-help techniques or medical help can be employed to direct the content of your dreams.


Engaging in regular exercise can alleviate nightmare-causing anxiety and stress. Exercise tires the body and relaxes the brain. From zumba to rock yoga, running to brisk walking, or hitting a gym, doing any form of exercise that you enjoy.  Maintaining a healthy lifestyle can ensure that you get sound sleep during the night.

Talk to your doctor

A number of medications such as anti-anxiety medication and antidepressants are known to contribute to nightmare frequency. You should consult your doctor if you have trouble coping with nightmares. Your doctor can reduce the dosage of medicine or change the medicine to stop bad dreams from disrupting your sleep and impacting your daily functioning.

Stress Reduction

Try to do things to relax your nervous system, since a relaxed mind goes a long way in ensuring sound sleep during the night. Deep breathing exercises, yoga, progressive muscle relaxation, or a calming activity you enjoy, such as listening to soothing music or reading, are all good places to start. You can also take a warm shower 90 minutes before going to sleep to calm yourself down. Inculcate meditative rituals just before you go to sleep to maintain a sense of balance and ease with your thoughts, including ones that feel negative.

Also read: Exercises and Yoga For Better Mental Health

Follow Sleep Hygiene

To combat bad dreams and keep them at bay, work on your ‘sleep hygiene’ (habits that ensure a good night’s sleep). Sleep deprivation and schedule changes that result in irregular sleeping hours can cause disturbing nightmares. Establish a regular sleep routine. Add a soft blanket, control the room temperature or use blackout curtains. Avoid unnecessary activities before bedtime, such as binge-watching movies.

Final thoughts

Nightmares are unpleasant, but they are a normal part of life. But when they become frequent, they can disrupt your daily functioning, cause sleep disorders and affect your overall health. Being mindful of your bedtime routine and creating optimal sleeping conditions can help prevent nightmares, but if those techniques aren’t working, seek intervention from your healthcare provider to battle those bad dreams away. 

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