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How To Understand Your Nightmares

Updated on February 25, 2015

The origins of nightmares

Most of us will remember at least one vivid nightmare we've had - leaving you sweating, heart pounding, breathless. We were relieved to know that it was just a dream For some people however, even waking up gives no relief. The nightmare was so frightening that it leaves them convinced that it's an omen of something bad. The question remains then - what are nightmares and why do we experience them?

The Oxford Dictionary describes nightmares as:

  • "A frightening or unpleasant dream".

They go onto describe that the origin of the word has nothing to do with 'mare' as in horses. In old Middle English a 'mare' was a form of female evil spirit or demon who was believed to try to suffocate people by lying on top of them while they slept. Another name for this spirit was 'Incubus'. Today people do experience this phenomena and it's often called the 'night hag' to explain these terrifying episodes. Medically it's called 'sleep paralysis'. However, regardless of what you want to call it, this is a distressing and frightening experience to have. Naturally, scientists attribute 'sleep paralysis' to brain activity. However, not everyone agrees that it's simply the brain causing these effects, but this would need to be covered in another hub.

In addition, although children do tend to experience nightmares the most, adults also have their fair share of these disturbing episodes. There are many factors that influence whether or not we may have a nightmare and looking at this in a little more depth might help us to understand these dreams more.

Nightmares are full of subconcious imagery and symbolism.
Nightmares are full of subconcious imagery and symbolism. | Source
Clowns are feared by many people and do feature in nightmares.
Clowns are feared by many people and do feature in nightmares. | Source
Interesting Dream Facts
1. Approximately 20-25% of our sleep is made up of dreaming. For most of us this means we dream for about 2 hours everynight.
2. Everybody dreams without exception. Some people think they don't because they don't have recall about them, but they dream like everyone else.
3. The most common kinds of dreams are about being in school, falling and being chased.

The stuff of nightmares

Basically a nightmare is any kind of dream that is vivid and realistic in a very unpleasant way. Frequently you will be jolted awake from these dreams leaving you in a state of distress. Interestingly medical research articles such as those from the 'National Library of Medicine' USA, also talk about the category of 'bad dreams'. Research seems to indicate that bad dreams are simply a less intense version of a nightmare and people don't tend to be awakened suddenly by them. However, bad dreams can cause ongoing problems like nightmares, if they are experienced on a regular basis.

Nightmares tend to occur during the Rapid Eye Movement (REM) period of sleep. This is the most active period of our dream state. Nightmares are usually experienced during the early hours of the morning. This is due to the fact that REM becomes progressively longer during the night. It's common for adults to have nightmares once in a while. However, with some people nightmares happen frequently and are a source of dread for those suffering from them. In research carried out it was found that women tend to have more nightmares than men. However, researchers believe that this could be because women are better at dream recall than men and also find it easier to discuss them.

What do people have nightmares about?

What people dream about during nightmares differs from person to person. However, researchers have found common themes:

  • Not being able to run fast enough from a perceived danger.
  • Falling from a great height.
  • People who have suffered a traumatic event often experience nightmares about their experiences.

There are more personalised subjects that people will dream about that are symbolic to them. I've asked a number of family members, friends and acquaintances to tell me about a nightmare that affected them particularly badly. The reports were very interesting and are listed below, but remember this was a small sample of people compared to official research surveys. The people I spoke to had nightmares about:

  • dreaming about a stranger, foreigner or shadow that they are afraid of. On occasion these 'dream people' will chase or in some other way threaten them.
  • In other dreams people had the feeling that someone was chasing them but there was no specific figure to be seen.
  • A close friend of mine, when she was depressed, had frequent nightmares of being chased down her street by a werewolf. She would wake up terrified and often sweating to the point she had to go and have a shower.
  • A couple of friends reported nightmares about being trapped in a building or other location and not being able to get out.
  • I tend to have two particular nightmares that used to occur when I was going through a particular bad patch in my life. I would have nightmares about being followed by a T-rex dinosaur or a serial killer - pleasant or what! The funny thing was, that whenever I did dream of these particular things, I knew another problem was going to arise soon and it always did within a day or so.

Recurring bad dreams should only cause concern when they are having an impact on your sleep - either wakening you up or if you are afraid to go to sleep. Researchers feel that recurring dreams tend to be more significant than ordinary ones and usually point to an important aspect of a person's life.

Night terrors

Night terrors are not the same as having a nightmare and although they mostly happen to children, adults do report this experience as well. With night terrors people don't dream but wake up with a feeling of fear and anxiety. There are no dream images to recall to explain why the person has awoken feeling so afraid.

The subconcious can create many strange and wonderful images for dreams and nightmares.
The subconcious can create many strange and wonderful images for dreams and nightmares. | Source
Interesting Dream Facts
1. Researchers who monitored people during sleep found that they could influence what the sleepers were dreaming about by introducing certain smells and odours. When sleepers were exposed to rotten egg smells, they dreamt mostly unpleasant dreams. However the sleepers who were exposed to the scent of roses reported only good dreams.

What causes nightmares?

The actual cause for the experience of a nightmare is still a mystery. Although what is known is that they are a product of the subconscious.

The subconscious will produce nightmares usually as a wake up call that there is something we need to deal with in life that has not as yet been resolved. The subconscious works in symbolic images only, therefore it can be difficult to grasp the significance of what your sub conscious is telling you. It's a case of looking at yourself and your life - especially the aspects that you dislike, avoid, fear or in any way put to the side, and aim to resolve them.

Other triggers for nightmares.

Although most adult nightmares happen spontaneously, there are a number of factors that could cause them. In some cases, there may be more than one trigger:

  • Eating late at night - having food quite late on in the evening causes the metabolic rate of the body to increase and this causes the brain to be more active as well, leading to the possibility of nightmares.
  • Medications - there are a number of medications that are known to trigger nightmares. The most common ones for having this affect are anti-depressants and some narcotics. However, research has shown that other medications such as those prescribed for high blood pressure can cause nightmares in some adults.
  • Withdrawal - both medication and alcohol withdrawal can trigger off nightmares. With medications, often tranquilisers are one of the main culprits.
  • Sleep deprivation - although some medical researchers are looking at the possibility of sleep deprivation cycles causing nightmares this has not been proven as yet.
  • Psychological disorders - depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) often cause nightmares that are both recurrent and become chronic.
  • Sleep disorders - these can trigger off nightmares especially conditions such as sleep apnoea and restless leg syndrome. However research is also looking into the possibility of recurring nightmares being a distinct sleep disorder in it's own right.
  • Having irregular hours for sleep or not getting enough sleep is thought to increase the risk of nightmares.
  • Genetic - the tendency to have nightmares can run in families.

Nightmare themes and symbols are personal to each of us.
Nightmare themes and symbols are personal to each of us. | Source

Do you remember a nightmare that you consider was the most frightening and disturbing?

See results
Does the sub-conscious create scary images in nightmares in order to get our attention?
Does the sub-conscious create scary images in nightmares in order to get our attention? | Source

How to cope with a nightmare

The aftermath sensations on waking up from a nightmare can be just as distressing as the dream itself. Carrying out a few simple acts to get yourself calm and re-focused help to dispel anxiety and fear:

  • Reassure yourself that you are safe physically and mentally. Switch a light on if this helps.
  • Breathe slowly and deeply - on the exhalation relax your body as much as you can.
  • Re-focus yourself into reality - look at the time, stand up, stamp your feet, take a drink of water, rinse your face. These will ground you back into waking mode.
  • Focus on positive thoughts if you can rather than the imagery of the nightmare.
  • If you need to relax further, read a book, do some more breathing techniques or whatever you feel will help, until you are ready to go back to sleep.

When nightmares occur on a regular basis then they can impact significantly on a person's mental and physical health. This is most likely to happen when there is already an underlying condition present such as:

  • Anxiety disorders
  • Depression
  • Untreated sleep apnoea - sleep apnoea/apnea is the slowing down or cessation of breathing during sleep.
  • Post traumatic stress disorder

In addition nightmares can also cause conditions to arise such as sleep deprivation, which in turn increases the risks of developing heart disease,depression and obesity.

However you could also be experiencing nightmares due to the fact that you just need to change a few things with your life style such as:

  • Diet and what times you eat. Diet and especially eating last thing at night has been known to cause nightmares. In addition, it is possible that some foods may be causing your nightmares so experiment a little and see what, if any, difference this makes.
  • Ensure that you are getting enough, quality sleep and also that your bedding and mattress are comfortable.
  • If you can, try talking through your nightmare with family or a good friend.
  • A number of people have found keeping a sleep diary or journal was beneficial in being able to understand their nightmares and dreams and so alleviating the problem. There are a number of quality books, CD's and DVD's available to buy or to borrow from your library. There are many 'dream dictionaries' on the market, but they are very limited in their use as they are not geared to individual people, experiences or circumstances.

Remember though that nightmares are messages - very unpleasant ones - but it's your mind and body telling you that you need to work out something that you are either ignoring or maybe not yet aware of. If you feel that nightmares are affecting your daily life and ability to sleep properly then seek medical advice from your doctor who will be able to advise on the best course of action for you.


Submit a Comment

  • Seeker7 profile imageAUTHOR

    Helen Murphy Howell 

    5 years ago from Fife, Scotland

    Hi SpongyOllama, many thanks for stopping by and glad that you enjoyed the hub! LOL!! Lucky you to have such a wonderful gentleman on hand to help you out with your nightmares!!! Mines never wakens up at all!!

  • Spongy0llama profile image

    Jake Brannen 

    5 years ago from Canada

    Good overview. I particularly enjoyed this. I often scream during nightmares and my boyfriend is quite proud of his ability to wake me up and "save" me from them in the middle of the night.

  • Seeker7 profile imageAUTHOR

    Helen Murphy Howell 

    5 years ago from Fife, Scotland

    Hi Graham, lovely to hear from you - hope you've had a nice start to 2013!!

    Glad that you enjoyed the hub - it was quite good fun writing this one!!

  • old albion profile image

    Graham Lee 

    5 years ago from Lancashire. England.

    Hi Helen. First class as usual. Such a lot covered and beautifully paced.

    Voted up and all.


  • Seeker7 profile imageAUTHOR

    Helen Murphy Howell 

    5 years ago from Fife, Scotland

    Hi tigerbaby777, glad that you enjoyed another hub!

    Nightmares are horrible experiences and yes, there are some that we don't forget!!

  • tigerbaby777 profile image


    5 years ago from Nampa

    Voted up and interesting! I have two very terrifying dreams that I will never forget.

    Thank goodness I out grew them.

  • Seeker7 profile imageAUTHOR

    Helen Murphy Howell 

    5 years ago from Fife, Scotland

    Hi precy anza, lovely to hear from you and many thanks for stopping by!

    What an interesting dream about fairies and gnomes especially working in your room? Do you think the dream had any special significance for you?

  • Seeker7 profile imageAUTHOR

    Helen Murphy Howell 

    5 years ago from Fife, Scotland

    Hi Nell - I agree with you, nightmares are horrible!! I've seem me waking up in an absolure cold sweat with some of the nightmares I've had over the years. It's interesting about the faces in yours turning evil. It reminded me of one where this lady was dressed in beautiful black lace, and her headdress was those stunning Spanish ones from olden days, with the high crown and veil. This woman had her back turned to me and as I approached her she quickly spun round and she was carrying a knife and she was obviously insane!!! Yikes I didn't get back to sleep for ages after that one as I kept seeing her face!

  • Seeker7 profile imageAUTHOR

    Helen Murphy Howell 

    5 years ago from Fife, Scotland

    Hi Audrey, it's very like, although it's nightmares, that you are also having lucid dreaming? That's when you realise you are in a dream. Some folks believe you can even influence the dream to go in a certain direction. Maybe you could try that sometime?

    I'm working on 5 and 6 at the moment, but once I get to 8 I'm definitely having a breather!!! LOL!

  • Seeker7 profile imageAUTHOR

    Helen Murphy Howell 

    5 years ago from Fife, Scotland

    Hi K56, great to hear from you and glad that you enjoyed the hub - many thanks also for the share, greatly apprceciated!!

  • precy anza profile image

    precy anza 

    5 years ago from USA

    I used to have nightmares before, and I'm just glad I hadn't had one for a long time. :) With that fourth image, it reminds me of two dreams I had: One dream with the fairies and one with gnomes working in my room. Voted up and shared!

  • Nell Rose profile image

    Nell Rose 

    5 years ago from England

    Great hub Seeker, nightmares are horrible things, I tend to get them when I am over tired. the ones I absolutely hate are the ones that seem normal but then the persons face starts to change and get evil looking, ugghhh! lol! I usually get up and get a glass of water, read a book or just put the light on to stop them, nell

  • akirchner profile image

    Audrey Kirchner 

    5 years ago from Washington

    Definitely, Helen--I tried the med just to get rid of the pain and it did work for that--but just in the little time that I was on it, the nightmares were insane--and I couldn't wake myself from those. I woke up one night literally screaming and decided that's enough of that!

    I do tend to think even when I dream--I'm always working out some problem or thinking about things while I sleep so I think I'm kind of half conscious or something. It may have been from being hypervigilant when I was a kid as my grandmother went on rampages a lot at night when I was sleeping. Anyhow, I seem to be able to take myself out of the dream most of the time and say don't let this bother you--just wake up and it's over--nice trick when it WORKS!

    Ah yes, coming up on the end and it doesn't seem possible does it? I've got 2 more to put up this week and then hopefully 2 next week and may take a breather as I have a bunch of family arriving for the holidays--but ya never know. I still have many to write--just need to find the time--I should give up sleep but alas we all need it--no matter whether with nightmares or without~ Have a great holiday if I don't talk to you!

  • Seeker7 profile imageAUTHOR

    Helen Murphy Howell 

    5 years ago from Fife, Scotland

    Hi Audrey - great as always to hear from you. Hope things are well with you? I can't believe we're into our last month of the Apprenticeship already!!

    That's really interesting that you can usually waken your self up from nightmares - like a safety loop! I wake up sometimes just after the nightmare has finished or just past the scariest bit!

    That's curious about Cymbalta, a taxi driver friend I know, was put on Tramadol for back pain and had to stop taking them, firstly because he couldn't fall over to sleep and when he did, he got really horrible nightmares. They were about people he knew quite well who were trying to chase him to hurt him and on occasion, he told me that he had a terrible nightmare where his old school teacher was chasing him around this old Victorian school with an axe in his hand!! Yikes! No wonder he wanted to come off the pills!

  • kashmir56 profile image

    Thomas Silvia 

    5 years ago from Massachusetts

    Great piece of writing here and very interesting and well researched .

    Vote up and more !!! SHARING !

  • Seeker7 profile imageAUTHOR

    Helen Murphy Howell 

    5 years ago from Fife, Scotland

    Hi teaches12345, many thanks as always for stopping by and glad that you enjoyed the hub.

    Like you I don't often have nightmares - thankfully - but I hope it might help someone somewhere!

  • Seeker7 profile imageAUTHOR

    Helen Murphy Howell 

    5 years ago from Fife, Scotland

    Hi Rosemay, lovely to hear from you - have you settled into your new house yet?

    I agree about nightmares being able to affect us and yes I think there is a good argument for them being a sleep disorder in their own right. I can't even imagine what it must be like for people to be scared to go to sleep at night, knowing that nightmares will happen.

    Like you, mine also stopped when my life started to pick up and only very occasionally do I get one. And yes, the subconcious is soooo strange, scary, complicated and fascinating all at the same time.

    Telescopic canons?? Wow! How odd is that!! Wonder what the symbology is beind that one?

  • Seeker7 profile imageAUTHOR

    Helen Murphy Howell 

    5 years ago from Fife, Scotland

    Hello tandaa, many thanks for stopping by and for leaving such an interesting comment.

    I think the subconcious has to be one of the most fascinating aspects of the mind. I also agree that the more we learn to interpret our dreams - good or bad - the more we not only learn about the subconcious but about our selves. I also agree that nightmares can be more than messages at times and this is what can make the subject both fascinating and complicated.

    Many thanks again for stopping by and for the vote up - greatly appreciated!!

  • Seeker7 profile imageAUTHOR

    Helen Murphy Howell 

    5 years ago from Fife, Scotland

    Hi Gypsy, as always lovely to hear from you and glad that you enjoyed the hub.

    I agree about nightmares, they are nasty, but they also seem to hold a fascination as well. Once my sisters and some friends started talking about the nightmares we could remember and we ended up discussing it for 4 hours solid!

    I've had one of the falling ones - and also fell out of bed one time as well! The 'odd faces' sounds very creepy!!

  • Seeker7 profile imageAUTHOR

    Helen Murphy Howell 

    5 years ago from Fife, Scotland

    Hello Michele, lovely to hear from you and glad that you stopped by.

    Nightmares are nasty but particularly so when they tend to repeat! Whatever was on your mind to cause your nightmare, speaking to your friend obviously helped.

  • akirchner profile image

    Audrey Kirchner 

    5 years ago from Washington

    Great information, Helen--I have had my share of nightmares over my lifetime so I know a lot of this info is true. I tend to have some kind of weird saving mechanism that USUALLY I can wake myself up from it by telling myself it's just a dream. When it doesn't work--bummer!

    I was on Cymbalta for a while because of the pain I have in my hip and leg and I found that this drug was insane for causing nightmares. I was on the tiniest of dosages too---frightening that they wanted me to increase it--I would have been a basket case!

  • teaches12345 profile image

    Dianna Mendez 

    5 years ago

    Interesting post on nightmares. I rarely have these, but as you said, the school pajama dream is one I remember having off and on through the years. I'm sure this hub will help many out there to understand what they are going through. Well done.

  • Rosemay50 profile image

    Rosemary Sadler 

    5 years ago from Hawkes Bay - NewZealand

    A very interesting hub Helen. I didn’t realise that nightmares could be genetic.

    It is interesting that they are considering recurring nightmares as being a sleep disorder in its own right because they can affect us in so many ways both in health and during our waking hours.

    I have suffered reoccurring nightmares but they stopped some years ago when my life changed. Now I just have the odd weird scary dream. I had one last week which would have made a good movie. Lol. But every aspect of the dream I could associate with what I'd seen, done and heard through the day, except the telescopic canons haha, no idea where they came from. It is strange how our subconscious gathers all these little things and twists them together.

  • tandaa profile image


    5 years ago from UAE

    Interesting article. (voted interesting) and i do agree that yes, nightmares are messages... sometimes, the subconscious self is trying to pass on a message either as a warning, information or just a guide. Research especially on Google about dream interpretations, whether the dream was good or bad, has helped me understand some of the nightmares and I'm surprised that I'm not the only one who had such a dream. thanks for the article

  • Gypsy Rose Lee profile image

    Gypsy Rose Lee 

    5 years ago from Riga, Latvia

    Voted up and interesting. Thank you for sharing this fascinating hub about nightmares. Hate the things but what can you do when you get them. My two worst kind are about falling and odd faces coming at me. Passing this on.

  • Michele Travis profile image

    Michele Travis 

    5 years ago from U.S.A. Ohio

    I have had several nightmares, one in particular that was something that happened to me. That one kept happening. It took a few years for it to go away. It finally went away after I talked to a very good friend about it.

  • Seeker7 profile imageAUTHOR

    Helen Murphy Howell 

    5 years ago from Fife, Scotland

    Hi Mhatter99, many thanks for stopping by - I'm glad that your nightmares are over!

  • Seeker7 profile imageAUTHOR

    Helen Murphy Howell 

    5 years ago from Fife, Scotland

    Hi DrMark1961, many thanks for stopping by and taking the time to leave a comment. Yes, I think it can, especially in cases such as apnoea, where the brain doesn't get enough oxygen.

  • Seeker7 profile imageAUTHOR

    Helen Murphy Howell 

    5 years ago from Fife, Scotland

    Hi teacherjoe52, many thanks for stopping by and for leaving such an interesting comment. Yes, I would entirely agree with you and add another of my own - some of the games played online or with other devices are about as nightmarish as any movie - that must cause grim thoughts to accumulate if you are constantly involved in shooting and blowing people up?

  • Seeker7 profile imageAUTHOR

    Helen Murphy Howell 

    5 years ago from Fife, Scotland

    LOL!!! Hey Frank - You get all your fears out with your wonderful creative writing so all that's left is the really nice stuff - that's why you have nice nightmares!!! Keep on writing those awesome nightmares of yours - they're not only delicously dark, but you have an exceptional talent - the modern Edgar Allan Poe!!!

  • Mhatter99 profile image

    Martin Kloess 

    5 years ago from San Francisco

    Thank you for this. It took a very long time to conquer my main nightmare. But since then I have had no more.

  • DrMark1961 profile image

    Dr Mark 

    5 years ago from The Atlantic Rain Forest, Brazil

    Interesting article.

    Do you think oxygen deprivation is a cause for nightmares or night terrrors? (The "black panther on the chest" nightmare?)

  • teacherjoe52 profile image


    5 years ago

    Good morning.

    May I suggest people be careful about what they watch or listen to before bed. If you watch a horrour flick that could cause nightmares. As well many times nightmare are caused by unresloved issues and need to be share with a therapist.

    God bless you.

  • Frank Atanacio profile image

    Frank Atanacio 

    5 years ago from Shelton

    damn most of the things I write are based on nightmares... but lately I've been having pleasant nightmares.. I wonder what that means LOL an interesting share.. yeah voted awesome :)


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