22 Common Causes Of Nightmares And Bad Dreams, And How To Avoid Them

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Bad dreams or nightmares are uncomfortable feelings within you. A nightmare is a poor emotional response within the brain provoked by unpleasant, scary, or highly realistic dreams you experience during the REM stage of sleep.

Common emotional responses to this type of dreams are depression, fear, horror, and terror.

Let’s explore WHAT causes nightmares, and how to avoid them. 

Many of these responses can stick within you for a long period.

Nightmares can be so intense that the body experiences a lot of things, including increased heart rate. Your body can also dehydrate after actively sweating out during the nightmare. You may even wake up crying because of the intense feeling of pain or sadness.

Nightmares are very common as bad dreams happen to everyone at some point. Most of the people on the planet experienced a nightmare at least once, while only 3% of the population never experienced on. 

As you know, you can’t control what you’re going to dream about. The entire nature of dreams is somewhat random when you look at the surface of it.

The good news is that nightmares aren’t frequent. Still, some people experience them on a regular basis. In this case, it’s best to see a professional because dreams can sometimes be indicators that something may be wrong with your neuro system.

If you’re experiencing bad dreams, you should try to identify some potential causes. Analyze emotional response to the nightmare and try to find a way to stop it from becoming a regular thing.

How to do that?

Take a few minutes to read the article below to discover what bad dreams are and what causes them.

What actually causes nightmares and bad dreams?

This topic is a bit complicated to explain quickly and in simple terms.

Many people believe that nightmares are just the brain’s natural response to stress or some fears locked inside the brain. 

The reasons for having bad dreams and nightmares are various. And while a certain thing may trigger bad dreams for one person, that may not be the case for someone else.

We’re all different and respond differently to various situations.

However, some patterns do exist, and we’ll try to discuss them all in some more detail.

1: Anxiety

People who deal with anxiety while they’re awake are more likely to experience bad dreams during the night. Those that fight anxiety during the day will most likely have nightmares more frequently than the rest of the people.

The anxiety is the bridge between high-stress levels and bad dreams.

People who suffer from anxiety disorder are at great risk of having side effects from nightmares, such as depression.

It’s recommended to try meditation and some breathing exercises during the day to prevent this from happening. This helps to drop the stress level, allowing you to feel more relaxed and secure.

However, you should definitely see a doctor if the issues persist.

2: Brain Activation

The brain is still a mostly unknown field, so activating certain parts of it can lead straight to nightmares that you’re trying to avoid.

For example, some highly stressed people activate significant parts of the brain, activating unnecessary “mind games” that prevent them from relaxing and resting.

When your brain is too active during the night, it starts to create and imagine unrealistic situations one after another. It makes up stories that are often negative, scary, and resulting in nightmares once you finally fall asleep.

Again, meditation can help you relax before going to bed.

3: Brain Injury

People with brain injuries are at great risk of a variety of conditions. Nightmares are often quite common in this case.

Although every brain damage is different, and many things happen from the place and nature of the injury, most of them involve bad dreams as a side effect.

Sadly, people with brain damage are often ideal candidates for developing insomnia. 

4: Brain Structure

Well, this is the most general thing that scientists can point out – an individualized brain structure is a culprit that triggers nightmares.

Brain structures and neurotransmissions play a huge rule in the frequency of bad dreams. Studying the brain structure, scientists can identify which parts are involved in nightmares.

5: Brain Waves

There’s a neural wave party in your brain that lasts all night long. Brain waves are various, and each of them has a specific function.

Most of the brain waves ride solo, although there is plenty that needs to connect and communicate with other waves to stimulate and push the brain to work properly.

Tetra and delta waves shift during sleep, depending on the stage of sleep you’re in. The combination of brain waves can mess with your brain’s rhythm, which often results in frequent nightmares.

Learn more about creating your own brainwaves or theta waves for lucid dreams. 

6: Depression

Depression works both ways in this case. It can be a side effect of frequent nightmares or a reason why nightmares happen in the first place.

Individuals who suffer from any stage of depression are more inclined to experience bad dreams because their brain is fulfilled with negative thoughts.

In this case, the brain is always working with nothing but negative emotions, which often leads to scary scenarios while sleeping.

This is a mental condition, so it’s always recommended to see a doctor and seek help. Most people who deal with depression and nightmares can be treated with different medications and methods.

Keep in mind that this is something that only a professional could help you without any risk of damaging the brain structure or brain waves in their functions. 

7: Drugs

Drugs of any kind, especially those with psychotropic effects, may trigger nightmares or cause them to be more frequent than usual.

Drugs are known as brain stimulants for dreams, but your mental condition will choose will it be a good dream or a bad one.

What drugs do?

They alter brain activities, boost neurotransmitter levels, and arouse the nervous system. Only one of these things is enough to trigger nightmares, let alone when they’re all combined.

8: Eating Before Bedtime

Some people believe that eating before bedtime can trigger bad dreams.

What is the thought behind this theory?

Ingesting the food requires lots of effort from your body. The process uses more than just your stomach to ingest the food, often boosting your metabolic rhythm that’s actually controlled by your brain.

Dream food

So, instead of allowing your brain to relax and prepare for bedtime, you force it to start working again by eating so late.

Do this once or twice, and you may not notice any problems with your sleep pattern. However, this can cause quite some trouble once it becomes a habit.

9: Emotional State

Your emotional state can affect many parts of your body and cause many changes. It can cause problems and disrupt functions in your system.

If you’re emotionally down or disturbed (feeling pain, sadness, depression, fear, etc.) before going to bed, you’re most likely to have bad dreams. 

The best way to prevent this is to keep your emotions on the right track. Deal with your emotions and with what you’re experiencing in day-to-day life. Try to make yourself happy and keep your stress level at a minimum.

Keeping emotions on the positive side will definitely reduce the likelihood of bad dreams.

10: Fear

We’re sure that you’ve experienced a nightmare after watching a horror movie at least once in your life. This is fear causing bad dreams, and it can actually do so even without any horror movies involved.

Worrying or being afraid of something/someone could potentially lead to nightmares. Some fears are more intense than others, which determines how frequently you could experience bad scenarios while sleeping.

Additionally, you’re likely to have a bad dream about whatever you’re afraid of.

The most common nightmares that are linked to real-life fears are those involving an abusive or criminal partner and a risk of abduction.

11: Genetics

There can be specific genes involved in sleeping that influences the brain to create bad dreams and scenarios that will lead to nightmares.

This isn’t as common, but it’s possible that you actually have a gene for nightmares. In this case, there’s nothing that you could do to stop them from happening. However, you can use meditation and other mental techniques to relax.

12: Medication

Although we talked about drugs, we should also mention what happens when you take prescribed medication. The truth is – a medicine can mess up your sleep cycle even if it was prescribed by your doctor.

By taking any psychotropic medications regime, you’re increasing your chances of having a bad dream. Some people who take this kind of medicines report frequent nightmares and very realistic dreams.

This isn’t something that will go away on its own. You should talk to your doctor if you start experiencing these things after taking your regular medications.

13: Movies

As we said, movies can influence your dreams quite a lot.

You probably know this from experience, especially if you like horror movies.

Horror or even savage action movies and crime series generate bad scenes and project them in your dreams, causing normal dreams to become nightmares.

Individual scenes can be stored in your memory without showing up until you’re under a lot of stress. This is when your brain will release the stored scenes that result in nightmares and vivid, disturbing dreams.

Horror and thriller movies touch the prime fear-center of the brain, which is why you’re scared when watching this kind of movie. When this fear-center is triggered, it can vibrate the waves and make your brain an easy target for all the fears that could potentially cause nightmares.

BUT you can use this to your advantage by watching movies about lucid dreaming! These will inspire and motivate you, and influence your dreams to be more lucid or positive. 

14: Neurodegenerative Disorder

People who are suffering from neurodegenerative disorders, such as Alzheimer’s, have increased risk of developing nightmares and/or frequent bad dreams.

Why is this happening?

It happens because neurodegenerative disorders change the brain structure and how fast the brain is functioning. The disorders break the wall between positive and negative stimuli waves, which is how bad dreams happen in this case.

15: Negative Thinking

It’s no surprise that thinking about negative topics can result in a pessimistic outcome, which is a nightmare in this case.

People who have more negative thoughts during the day make their brains vulnerable and easy prey for mental illness and disorders.

Thinking negatively about a topic or situation will cause you to have nightmares involving whatever you’re thinking negatively about.

16: Psychosis

People with psychosis are in poor psychotic states and at high risk of experiencing different bad dreams and vivid nightmares.

Psychosis triggers many things and is a serious thing. Nightmares are one of the most common things that happen when suffering from psychosis.

17: Random Elements

Think about how much information, images, and sounds reach your brain every day. It’s normal for it to pick up some details from the trillions of things it heard during the day.

What your brain does is store these random elements before using them all to create a story. It links the random information with your fears and whatever stress you’re going through to cause some pretty nasty nightmares.

Sometimes, your brain will make a vivid dream out of many random elements. You’ve probably experienced waking up after a weird dream that makes no sense. This is because your mind used some of that info is stored in the “random elements” box.

18: Reading Material

Reading can be a way to relax before bedtime, but you have to be careful with what you’re reading at this time. Reading horror stories and murder cases may not be the best material to read before bed.

Much like in the case of movies, your brain is exposed to stressful images and information. This can trigger your fears, which can result in a rather unpleasant night.

19: REM Sleep

Rapid-eye movement a.k.a. REM sleep is known for triggering vivid dreams. During REM sleep, your brain sends random signals, half waves, or unclear waves. This combination can result in bad dreams or/and nightmares.

It’s believed that animals that can experience REM sleep can also have nightmares. It’s why animals are sometimes making weird noises during sleep.

20: Scary Stories

We’ve mentioned how movies and books can mess up your dreams, but did you know that other people can do that to you too?

More precisely, listening to your friend’s scary experience right before going to bad may trigger some of your own fears. This is most likely to end up in a nightmare.

Different emotions are mixed along with your fears, so don’t be surprised if you experience a rather weird and an unpleased dream.

21: Schizophrenia

People with schizophrenia are disconnected from the real world outside. Everything starts and ends inside their brain.

An ill brain projects 60% more negative waves than a regular healthy brain does. 

Schizophrenia overcomes most of the brain – from basic functioning to waves it produces. For this reason, it’s filled with negativity. And, of course, this much negativity is easy to result in nightmares.

This is a serious condition because most of these people can’t control anything. They often walk and talk during sleep, putting themselves and others at risk.

Living with this kind of person is extremely difficult, and the consequences often involve insomnia. In most cases, there’s no other solution than to hospitalize the person who suffers from schizophrenia so that he/she can be treated properly.

22: Subconscious

We all have a subconscious mind beneath our conscious awareness. This contains many buried emotions from the past, random elements, repressed memories, and many things that the brain is exposed to during the day.

You can easily have a nightmare when all of these things are mixed. People who experienced violence often relive those situations and emotions. This negative thinking pinches the fear-center of your brain, triggering bad dreams.

How to deal with nightmares

Once you read through all the possible causes that may be triggering your nightmares, you can focus on trying to fix the issue.

Although every person is different and has different ways of coping with problems, there are some general things you can try to help avoid bad dreams.

Here’s what may help to reduce or prevent bad dreams:

  • Acceptance

The first thing that you should do is acknowledge the problem so that you can work on it. Think about how frequently you have bad dreams and what they involve. Do you dream about past trauma? Or you have random scary things in your dreams?

You should work on accepting that nightmares aren’t real. It could be your mind’s way of dealing with stress or something else, but what you see in dreams isn’t real life, so don’t accumulate emotions you experience while sleeping.

  • Comfort

Sleeping comfortably will help your body and brain to relax, work less, and go to sleep mode. Your body will be relaxed, so it won’t create any bad emotions or waves. Think about your bed, sheets, and pillow. Are they comfortable? Make sure that the rest of your room is also comfortable to spend time in.

  • A dream catcher

A dream catcher really doesn’t do anything, but it’s a good thing to use as a placebo effect. Although you can’t do this to yourself since you know that science can’t back this up, you can help a child fight bad dreams using a catcher.

  • Gratitude

Being grateful can bring many great things into your life. Feeling gratitude can make you feel relaxed and at peace, which could mean you’d stop having bad dreams. Instead of focusing on your problems and obligations, take some time to think about things that you are grateful for.

While you think about the good stuff you have, you’re generating positive thoughts and emotions. They’re most likely to end up in nice and pleasant dreams rather than bad ones.

  • Imagery rehearsal therapy (IRT) 

This is a specific type of behavioral treatment for people who experience strong and vivid nightmares. How does it work? A person will imagine a previously written dream scenario, repeating and imagining this in their head. While sleeping, your mind will put parts of this imaginary story in the place of bad ones it previously had.

What appears to be a bad dream will convert into a familiar story with a few things changed.

  • Journaling

You should already be keeping a dream journal, if you want to lucid dream. This is a well-known method to relax before bed.

Plus, you can use it to practice gratitude as well. Use this journal to keep track of your dreams, writing down as many details as you can remember and how they relate to your real life.

Even if you don’t remember your dream, you should take the time to note how you felt after waking up. This will help you figure out if there’s a pattern, allowing you to understand what your mind is trying to tell you.

  • Nostalgia

You should be careful if you’re a more nostalgic person. Although it’s in our nature to go through our past experiences, you should try to stay away from what makes you feel nostalgic.

Open your eyes and take deep breaths once you start feeling nostalgic about something. Close your eyes again, and try to focus on something positive and happy.

These are just a few potential reasons behind bad dreams and nightmares. It usually takes only one of them to trigger these unpleasant experiences.

Use your common sense when trying to figure out what may be the reason behind your trouble. For example, watching a scary movie once in a while shouldn’t cause bad dreams every night.

Many people have different methods and ways of coping with what they’re experiencing during the day. Our minds respond differently to all kinds of situations, so try to find a pattern.

Note every change and write your dreams down. Focus on the good stuff as much as you can, and try to think positively.

You can always try some of these methods we mentioned, but make sure not to push anything. If you don’t feel better, we suggest you see a professional for some more help.