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Nightmares: Causes, Types, and Treatments by Lauren Christiansen

Updated: Sep 3, 2020

Photo credit: Pexels

Many of us can remember the vivid nightmares we experienced as children. We woke up in the middle of the night, hearts pounding, our chest tight. We would run into our parents’ rooms, cuddle up in a panicked ball, as one of them soothed us back into a peaceful sleep. In the morning, the bad dream was forgotten, as though it never happened.

As we aged, our bad dreams may have become less frequent and vivid in nature. Many adults claim to not dream at all, but science says otherwise. Adults and babies alike dream for two hours per night, and researchers have found that the majority of people have several different dreams per night, each one lasting between 5 and 20 minutes.

So regardless of whether or not we remember our dreams, we know it’s a universal phenomenon. Though some of us have funny or strange dreams, many of us continue to have disturbing nightmares that cause us to wake up in a cold sweat. We may forget them in the morning, or perhaps they sit with us for a while, leaving an unsettling feeling within. What do these bad dreams mean? Do they mean anything at all or are they just our subconscious running wild? Why do some people still have nightmares as adults, and what can be done about it? Here is what the science says:

HSP (Highly Sensitive People) & Dreams

Highly sensitive people (HSP) are individuals who have personality traits involving an increased sensitivity to the central nervous system and deeper cognitive processing of physical, social, and emotional stimuli. HSPs tend to have vivid dreams regularly, remember them, and can interpret them. Some experts believe that their dreams serve as a purpose to educate and make information useful to these individuals.

Cause of Nightmares

While HSPs may utilize dreams to change direction in their lives or grow, those who are not especially sensitive can continue to have nightmares. Nightmares in adults are often spontaneous, but can also be caused by underlying conditions. Causes can include:

  • Eating late-night snacks

  • Medications – narcotics, blood pressure medications

  • Withdrawals from substances – alcohol, tranquilizers, opiates

  • Sleep deprivation

Most importantly, several psychological triggers cause nightmares, including Post Traumatic Stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety, and depression. Restless leg syndrome and sleep apnea are also known to induce nightmares in some individuals.

Dreams Convey Underlying Emotions

Though dreams themselves tend to not make much sense, they are a way for our subconscious minds to sift through powerful feelings and emotions. Those who suffer from anxiety may have dreams that include:

  • An embarrassing situation – nakedness in public, forgetting lines in a play, etc.

  • Being stuck – an inability to move or get to where you need to be

  • Trapped – feeling unable to get out of a situation

  • Nostalgic – dreams involving old friends

Also, those who have PTSD may have reoccurring dreams that replay the traumatic incident. These can be very uncomfortable and frightening. The incident may vary slightly in the dream, but the underlying trauma is still replayed.


Fortunately, there are ways to cope with nightmares and reduce their frequency. Some treatments include:

  • Treating the underlying condition – sleep apnea, restless leg syndrome, etc.

  • Removing substances/medications that cause nightmares – This should be done with a physician

  • Controlling daytime anxiety and depression through therapy, antidepressants, etc.

Behavioral changes have proven effective for 70 percent of adults who suffer from nightmares, including depression, anxiety, and PTSD. Imagery rehearsal treatment is a newer cognitive behavioral therapy technique that helps sufferers change their nightmares by rehearsing how they would like the dream to go. Imagery Rehearsal Treatment has been proven to be a more effective form of treating PTSD related nightmares than even CBT, though therapy is always an important addition.

Furthermore, exercise, yoga, and mindfulness can help reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression which can also help alleviate the frequency of anxiety-induced nightmares. Positive self-talk and meditation before bed also show promising results. Regardless of how frequent or frightening our nightmares may seem, there is help available.

Do you struggle with anxiety, depression, and bad dreams? Are you suffering from PTSD? If so, please contact Straight Talk Clinic at 714-828-2000 or visit our website at One of our professional counselors would be happy to meet with you.

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