Dreams and Nightmares

Updated May 12, 2022

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Why Do We Dream?

According to Healthline, dreams are hallucinations that occur during certain stages of sleep. Dreams are strongest during REM sleep. Researchers have had a difficult time explaining the role of dreams. Often dreams will make little to no sense because the emotional centers of the brain trigger dreams, not the logical regions. 

Purpose of Dreams

As explained before, researchers don't entirely agree on the purpose of dreams. Below are some of the popular beliefs and theories provided by Healthline. 


A dream could be your brain's way of confronting certain emotional drama in your life. As mentioned, your brain is more emotional when you are sleeping. Your brain could be making connections about your feelings your conscious self would not. 

Your Muse

Dreaming may help facilitate our creative tendencies. Certain artists have come up with great ideas while they were dreaming. Dreams filter out logical thoughts you usw while your awake that could restrict your creative thoughts.

Memory Aide

One of the most common theories about the purpose of dreams is that they help you store memories and other things you've learned. They may also help remove unimportant memories from your brain. Sleep is an important part of memory storage


What Causes Nightmares?

Mayo Clinic describes a nightmare as a disturbing dream associated with negative feelings, such as anxiety or fear that awakens you. Nightmares are most common with children but they can happen at any age. Most of the time, occasional nightmares are nothing to worry about. When nightmares happen often, it could be a sign of something more serious.

Nightmare Disorder

Nightmare disorder is a sleep disorder that occurs when someone suffers from frequent nightmares, although they are relatively rare. Over time recurrent nightmares can cause distress, sleep disturbances, and have a negative effect on functioning during the daytime, resulting in daytime sleepiness. It can also cause a fear of going to sleep.


Nightmare disorder is a medical condition referred to by doctors as a type of parasomnia, a sleep disorder that involves unpleasant experiences while falling asleep, during sleep, or waking up. Most nightmares occur during the sleep stage of rapid eye movement (REM). The exact cause of nightmares is unknown but they can be triggered by some of the things listed below.

  • Stress or anxiety

  • Trauma

  • Sleep deprivation

  • Medications such as antidepressants or blood pressure medications

  • Substance misuse

  • Other Disorders (depression or other mental health issues)

  • Scary books and movies

What Do Nightmares Mean?

Usually, nightmares are caused by some sort of underlying stress or fear. Different types of nightmares could have different meanings. Some nightmares don’t mean anything at all, they’re simply electrical brain impulses that pull random thoughts and imagery from our memories.

Common Nightmares

According to the International Association for the Study of Dreams, some people experience nightmares in different ways including:

  • Falling

  • Being chased or kidnapped

  • Rejection, abandonment, betrayal, or humiliation

  • Natural disasters

  • Technological disasters

  • Violent attack or injury to the dreamer or the dreamer's loved ones

  • Lost loved ones returning from the dead in a frightening form

  • Vehicles losing control or crashing

  • Being paralyzed or incapacitated

  • Having an incurable illness

  • Teeth falling out

PTSD and Nightmares

PTSD, or post-traumatic stress disorder, affects nearly 8% of Americans who have experienced a distressing event in their lives. While the causes can vary - sufferers include military veterans, survivors of sexual, physical, or emotional abuse, survivors of terrorism, or some other traumatic experience, many of the symptoms are similar. Most sufferers experience flashbacks, trouble sleeping or eating, intense physical reactions to triggers such as loud noises or being around a lot of people, nightmares, and a deep depression that can cause the person to feel isolated and withdraw from social situations.

PTSD can affect anyone of any age, and although it's treatable, some individuals find it difficult to cope with the aftermath of their traumatic event because it's hard to push the memories away. There are several different types of therapies aimed at helping those living with PTSD, but for some, the flashbacks and nightmares stick around for months or years after the event. In fact, some studies have shown that PTSD nightmares affect up to 96% of PTSD sufferers, and some of them have bad dreams several times a week. For these people, sleep can be unwelcoming and can leave the person feeling more tired than they were before. For many, the nightmare could be a replay of the traumatic event.

Children who suffer from PTSD may experience different symptoms than those endured by adults but often struggle with frightening dreams or other sleeping problems, as well.

It's important to let the child know they are safe and loved. If they are okay with physical affection, hugs can go a long way. It's helpful to look for ways in which the child may feel some control over triggers; for instance, setting a routine every night to lock all the doors and windows in the house if their PTSD is related to a break-in.

Keeping the child's normal routine as much as possible can also eliminate stress, and they'll need to be reassured that nightmares affect many people and that they aren't alone. Younger children may need to talk about dreams and how they are just like pictures in a book; they may be scary or hard to understand, but they won't harm them.

How to Find Relief for Nightmares and PTSD

If nightmares are happening frequently, it is time to see a doctor. Some people find certain types of therapy helpful, while others need more physical treatments. Here are a few of the most successful.

Image Rehearsal Therapy

For some individuals, facing the elements of nightmares during daylight hours makes it seem less terrifying and more life-size. Therapists have found that it can be helpful for the sufferer to visualize the elements of their nightmare during a session and change different parts. Being in control of the ending of a nightmare - and then replaying it over and over - can be extremely helpful in training the mind to take a different course when the person falls asleep.

"Verbalization and repetition of troubling dream content may bring a catharsis, including the normalization of fears, desensitization of nightmare and its troubling content, and the emergence of new themes and renewed capacity to "play" with the dream images," says Dr. Alan Siegel, author of A Mini-Course For Clinicians And Trauma Workers On Posttraumatic Nightmares.

Breathing Treatments

For many who suffer from nightmares, breathing treatments can cause significant results in helping the individual reduce sleep anxieties. In several studies, high levels of breathing issues during sleep were found to be the cause of many disruptions and bad dreams for people living with PTSD or nightmare disorder.

"Several recent studies have shown a very high incidence of sleep apnea in anxiety disorders. These include disorders such as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), Generalized Anxiety Disorder and Panic Disorder as well as Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. Sleep apnea has been noted most often in PTSD, both in studies on returning veterans as well as in women who have suffered sexual trauma," writes Dr. Robert Rosenberg.

Cognitive Therapy

The goal of cognitive therapy is to help sufferers change the way they think and process things related to the trauma and how certain reactions and thought processes make stress and anxiety worse, as well as to help the individual learn how to cope with emotions like anger and guilt. This type of therapy can be especially helpful for veterans who witnessed or were involved in combat.

"The nature of war necessarily requires service members to be often in the position of not only being victimized but also having to commit acts of violence. Although this may be an expectation of war, it is still often a focus of treatment, especially when acts of violence were either intentionally or unintentionally directed toward members of society (e.g. civilian women and children). These acts may result in extreme cognitive and emotional distress, which may disrupt core beliefs about oneself and the world. CPT seeks to directly address related stuck points and help service members reconcile these internal conflicts," reports an article by the Center for Deployment Psychology.


It's important for PTSD sufferers to seek counseling or therapy when coping with their symptoms in order to find healthy ways to live with them and recover. Sometimes, there are different medications that can aid in achieving restful sleep or even in keeping nightmares at bay. Any treatment involving medicine should be actively monitored by a healthcare professional.

Refrain From Isolation

It's understandable that a person who has lived through a traumatic event will want to stay away from places or people that might trigger bad memories afterward, but it's important not to shy away from them. Individuals living with PTSD should make an effort to come face-to-face with the things that remind them of the event in order to overcome their fears and anxiety. It's okay to take baby steps, but stepping a little out of the zone of comfort is important in recovery because it gives the sufferer a feeling of control where there was none otherwise.

PTSD can lead to severe depression, substance abuse, or suicidal thoughts. It's imperative for the sufferer to be honest with their physician about their daily habits so that the right treatment can be administered, and also because substance abuse can make mood disorders worse. Isolation from friends and family can be detrimental to recovery because it enables depression to grow. Find a good exercise routine... and stick with it.

Art Therapy

Finding healthy ways to cope with PTSD or nightmare disorder is imperative. This can be anything from learning to play an instrument or working outdoors to creating visual art in order to release emotions in a positive way. Various types of art therapy include:

  • Dance

  • Music

  • Theater

  • Gardening

  • Visual art, including painting, sculpting, drawing, or collage

  • Creative writing/journaling

  • Cooking/baking

All types of art therapy can be excellent means of release for emotions, but they can also boost self-esteem and promote a positive outlook. Even if an individual suffering from PTSD doesn't think of themselves as being "creative", they'll likely find something they enjoy or have always wanted to try. Work with animals Working with animals can be extremely rewarding and soothing; the benefits of spending time with horses and dogs, especially, have been documented in studies for the treatment of mood disorders - such as depression - and learning disabilities.

Preventing Nightmares

If you or a child struggle with nightmares, try these home remedies to obtain better sleep. We have more information on our page about sleep loss.

Proper Sleep Hygiene

Keeping a consistent sleep schedule will help sleep quality. Engage in quiet, calming activities such as reading, meditation, or deep breathing.

Offer Reassurances

If your child is having nightmares be patient, calm, and reassuring. Comfort your child after a nightmare, this could prevent future nightmares. Make sure your child is comfortable at night with blankets, stuffed animals, or a nightlight.

Talk About the Dream

Ask your child to tell you what happened. If this is happening to you find someone to talk about it to. This could be your significant other, a friend, or a therapist. Writing down your worries in a journal before bed can help alleviate stress.

Night Terrors Vs Nightmares

Night terrors or sleep terrors are different types of parasomnia that involve abnormal occurrences such as intense fear, screaming, and thrashing around while you’re still asleep. This is more common in children and usually goes away when by the time the child becomes a teen. Nearly 40% of children will experience night terrors while only 2.2% of adults say they have night terrors according to Mayo Clinic.

Night terrors are most common in people with mood or anxiety disorders. They can be triggered by sleep deprivation, stress, fevers, and changes in a schedule similar to nightmares.

One key difference between night terrors and nightmares is that they occur in different stages of sleep. Nightmares occur during REM sleep and night terrors typically occur during non-REM sleep. The other difference is when you have a nightmare, you may wake up easily, and be able to think easily even if you feel scared. With night terrors, you might have difficulty waking up, and you may be confused if someone does manage to wake you.


Do Dogs Have Nightmares?

Dogs can have nightmares. They may start growling, barking, or moving around in their sleep. Allow your dog to awake on its own, it is not recommended to wake up your dog while it is having a nightmare.

Does Melatonin Cause Nightmares?

Some people have reported nightmares and lucid dreams (you know you're dreaming while you are asleep) after taking melatonin, but there is not enough scientific research to make a connection.

Can Babies Have Nightmares?

Experts do not think that babies can have bad dreams. They will cry out for many reasons including hunger or need a diaper change. If the baby is crying with its eyes closed or not responding it may be confusional arousal. This is similar to sleep talking or sleepwalking, this is normal and there is no need for concern.

Can Cats Have Nightmares?

Cats can also have nightmares. They may meow, hiss, or make sporadic movements while sleeping.

About the Author Steven Bieber

Steven Bieber HeadshotSteven is a content writer who recently broke into the mattress industry. In his free time, he enjoys watching football and listening to music.

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