Running Scared: It Won't Stop Your Nightmares

"I have the same dream, over and over. I'm walking down a busy city street at midday. All of a sudden, the sun disappears and I'm all alone. I can't see anyone, but I know someone's following me. I try to run, but my feet stick to the ground. I try to scream, but nothing comes out. I'm helpless and terrified."

An Upsetting Dream

A nightmare is a very upsetting or frightening dream. It usually forces us to wake up, at least partially. The dreamer may feel anger, guilt, sadness, depression or other feelings. However, the most common feelings are fear and anxiety. People have nightmares about many different things.

Anxiety is the most common theme of dreams. Some examples include exploding buildings, being chased by unseen evil, and not being prepared for an exam. Anxiety nightmares may be messages from your unconscious. They may point to a conflict or trauma in your waking life.

Nightmares and Night Terrors

Nightmares are different from night terrors.

  • Nightmares tend to happen late in the sleep cycle. They do not usually involve screaming or moving. The dream may detailed and intense. Soon after waking up, the dreamer realizes that it was a dream.
  • Night terrors on the other hand, happen during deep sleep. They may involve loud screaming and moving about. The sleeper is hard to awaken. They may not remember more than an overwhelming feeling or a single scene. Children who have night terrors also have a tendency to sleepwalk and/or wet their beds.

Nightmare Disorder

Everyone has nightmares from time to time. But some people have nightmare disorder. Nightmare disorder causes nightmares that:

  • Happen more than once a week
  • Disrupt sleep
  • Affect moods or daily functions

If you have any of these symptoms, talk to your doctor.

Causes of Nightmares

Many things can cause nightmares. Some common ones are:

A Chance to Sort It Out

Dreams can come from emotional conflicts that have not been fixed. These conflicts may go back to childhood. You may want to find out what messages are in your nightmare. This may help you uncover areas of your life that need attention. When an issue is worked out and understood, it is less likely to show up in your nightmares.

Ways to Find Meaning

There are several ways people can work out the meaning of their nightmares.

Keep a Dream Log

Try keeping a dream log and record each night's episodes. Keep a notebook and pen next to your bed. As soon as you wake, ask yourself what you were just thinking about. You will remember your thoughts more easily this way. Write them down and examine them later.

Read Books About Dreams

Another method is to work on finding the messages in your nightmares. Look for books that help you understand general themes of dreams. But keep in mind that dreams and nightmares are personal. They are based on your unique experiences and thought patterns.

Help Children Understand Dreams

It is a bit more difficult to help children deal with their nightmares. Gentle encouragement may help children to discuss their nightmares. If nightmares persist and are very upsetting, a therapist may be needed. The therapist may ask the child to:

  • Draw the nightmare
  • Talk with scary characters
  • Imagine changes in the nightmare—to help the child feel safer and less scared

Help for Nightmares

Nightmares might teach us about ourselves, but they are still upsetting. It is important to treat problems that can cause nightmares, such as mental health conditions.

It may also help to:

  • Get plenty of sleep—at least 7 to 8 hours per night
  • Follow a set sleep schedule.
  • Not use alcohol or caffeine in the evening.
  • Talk to your doctor about your medicines.
  • Write about nightmares that happen over and over. Then, change the ending to something pleasant. Read it during the day.
  • Try relaxation methods, such as yoga or soothing music.
  • Talk to a therapist.

Though nightmares are a part of life, sometimes we can take steps to put them to sleep.

RESOURCES:

National Sleep Foundation
https://www.sleepfoundation.org
The Better Sleep Council
https://bettersleep.org

CANADIAN RESOURCES:

Canadian Sleep Society
https://css-scs.ca

References:

Common questions about nightmares. International Association for the Study of Dreams website. Available at:
...(Click grey area to select URL)
Accessed July 1, 2021.
Nightmares and night terrors. Family Doctor—American Academy of Family Physicians website. Available at: https://familydoctor.org/condition/nightmares-and-night-terrors. . Accessed July 1, 2021.
Nightmares. Sleep Foundation website. Available at: https://www.sleepfoundation.org/nightmares. Accessed July 1, 2021.
Night terrors. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: https://www.dynamed.com/condition/night-terrors-15 . Accessed July 1, 2021.
Last reviewed July 1, 2021 by EBSCO Medical Review Board
Last Updated: 7/1/2021

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