Everyone has had at least one nightmare, but some people suffer from nightmares on a consistent basis. To truly understand the disorder, it is necessary to separate myth from fact.
Everyone has nightmares once in a while. Though they can be distressing and potentially disturbing, they are everyday life experiences. Not everyone will have nightmare disorder, though. Nightmare disorder is a sleep-wake disorder that has the ability to trigger extremely intense, vivid and threatening dreams.
Because there is a lot of overlap between nightmares and nightmare disorder, many people don’t have a full understanding of this sleep disorder. Discover some of the most common myths and misconceptions about nightmares and nightmare disorder.
Myth #1: Nightmares have no basis in reality.
Fact: Nightmares are often expressions of everyday life.
The myth perpetuates the idea that nightmares are completely fictional dreams without any connection to real life. A dream is only a dream, and someone should not pay attention to the content of their nightmares.
The truth is that nightmares are connected to reality. It is the reality of a person’s everyday life that triggers nightmares to form and impacts the quality and quantity of sleep.
If a person is experiencing high levels of stress, tension, worry or fear, in reality, their brain may create nightmares as a way to process the emotional consequences. A range of situations may trigger nightmares, including:
- Starting at a new school or job
- Taking a trip
- Family or personal illness
Real-life events can trigger two specific types of nightmares:
- Anxiety nightmares: These can form from high-stress situations at home, work or school. People who are facing pressure from deadlines or fighting with their spouse could have these unwanted dreams.
- Trauma nightmares: These can form in people who have gone through abuse, neglect or other terrifying experiences. All nightmares are unwanted and problematic, but trauma nightmares can be especially challenging.
Of course, some nightmares may have no foundation in reality, but people with persistent nightmares should look for factors in their lives that may be causing them.
Myth #2: Nightmares and night terrors are the same.
Fact: Nightmares and night terrors are different experiences that affect people differently.
They both happen during the night. They both are scary, and they both interfere with a person’s sleep. Because of this, many believe that nightmares and night terrors must mean the same thing. When it comes to night terrors vs. nightmares, each one is a unique situation for many reasons. Despite some degree of overlap, the sleep disturbances create individualized symptoms and effects.
Night terrors, sometimes called sleep terrors, are a type of rapid eye movement (REM) sleep disorder. These episodes cause a person to suddenly wake up in a fearful state, causing effects such as:
- Large pupils
- Rapid heart rate
- Quickened breathing
Someone experiencing a night terror will not respond well when others try to calm and comfort them. They usually have no memory of a dream or feeling scared, even if they are screaming or crying during the event.
Nightmares, on the other hand, are scary and distressing dreams that involve a threatening person or situation. When the person awakes, they become alert quickly while remembering the dream in vivid detail.
There are a few questions to ask when distinguishing a night terror from a nightmare:
- Can the person remember the dream?
- Can they wake and focus quickly?
If someone answers yes to these questions, they likely had a nightmare — not a night terror.
Myth #3: Nightmares mostly affect children.
Fact: Both adults and children experience nightmares.
While it is true that nightmares usually start during childhood, the prevalence of nightmares actually increases from childhood into adolescence.
Most children will experience at least a few nightmares before age 10, and they tend to be more common in girls than boys. Nightmares do not simply stop on someone’s 18th birthday, though. Nightmare rates continue to grow until age 30 and then begin declining. During their 20s, women are twice as likely to have nightmares compared to men.
Nightmares in adults persist throughout life. According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, about 6% of adults report having nightmares monthly. In addition, between 1% and 2% of adults report having frequent nightmares.
Myth #4: Certain foods cause nightmares.
Fact: While there may be a connection between specific foods and nightmares, drugs are a more likely cause.
Many people think that if someone eats too many sweets or too much garlic before bed, they will have nightmares. This myth suggests that if someone wants to stop the nightmares from coming, they only need to change their diet before bed.
Some people may find a connection between specific foods and an increased risk of nightmares. However, the probability of one food triggering nightmares 100% of the time seems unlikely.
It is more common for certain drugs and alcohol to cause nightmares. Drinking too much alcohol before bed or using illicit drugs can result in sleep disturbed by nightmares. Prescription drugs, over-the-counter medications, and even caffeine can cause bad dreams as well. If a person is using a sleep aid or a new medication from their doctor, they could be affected by nightmares.
Ending the use of certain medications and drugs are another cause of nightmares. If someone quickly stops using alcohol, pain medications, sleeping pills or other substances, their brain may produce nightmares as part of the withdrawal process.
Nightmares caused by use or discontinuation of drugs and alcohol are much more likely than those caused by foods.
Myth #5: Nightmares will just disappear over time.
Fact: Effective treatment methods can reduce nightmares.
Thinking that nightmares simply go away on their own is troubling because it leads people to believe that there is nothing to be done.
Yes, the rates of nightmares seem to decrease in people over 30, but waiting decades for a problem to “go away” is not a great solution. People dealing with frequent or intense nightmares should consider professional or at-home treatment options.
Professional nightmare disorder treatment options include:
- Medical treatment: Medical conditions like drug withdrawal, sleep apnea, sleep disorders or mental health disorders can generate nightmares. Addressing these health conditions can help resolve the nightmares.
- Stress management: Since stress is a leading cause of nightmares, someone can reduce their bad dreams by targeting and lowering their stress levels through therapy.
- Medication: Depending on the source of nightmares, doctors can prescribe medications to reduce the severity or regularity of bad dreams.
- Image rehearsal therapy: People with certain types of nightmares can use this form of therapy to change their nightmares. It helps them to establish a sense of control and power over the scary images.
People can also employ at-home nightmare treatments, including:
- Practicing better sleep hygiene
- Talking about the dream and its troubling details
- Finding ways to change the sleep environment
- Maintaining a sleep and nightmare journal
- Providing reassurance to oneself
Fortunately, treatments do work. About 70% of adults with nightmares find relief from professional or at-home strategies.
Myth #6: Nightmares aren’t linked to other disorders.
Fact: Nightmares are linked to several serious mental and physical health problems.
Some people believe that nightmares are not a sign or symptom of any larger concerns, however, nightmares have a strong connection to a variety of psychological and physical problems. In many cases, nightmares could offer a strong indication that an underlying issue is not receiving the attention and treatment it deserves.
Some physical health issues linked to nightmares include:
- Sleep apnea
- Sleep disorders like narcolepsy
- Restless leg syndrome
Mental health issues are known to cause nightmares to include:
- Substance use disorders
- Substance use withdrawal
- Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
PTSD nightmares are quite common and problematic for people. Often, the nightmares serve as reminders of the traumatic events and situations that initially created PTSD.
Nightmares can cause side effects as well. People can easily become sleep deprived because nightmares make them unable to sleep well. In addition, there are links between nightmares and heart disease, obesity and depression.
If your nightmares trigger the urge to use substances or if your substance use is triggering nightmares, contact the experts at The Recovery Village. Our treatment process can comprehensively address nightmares, substance use, and other physical or mental health issues. By beginning the path of recovery, you can live a life free of substance use and co-occurring mental health disorders.
American Psychiatric Association. “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders – Fifth Edition.” 2013.
Berger, Fred K. “Nightmares.” MedlinePlus, March 26, 2018. Accessed June 6, 2019.
DerSarkissian, Carol. “Nightmares in Adults.” WebMD, May 15, 2019. Accessed June 6, 2019.
Mayo Clinic. “Nightmare Disorder.” July 6, 2017. Accessed June 6, 2019.
The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare providers.