The Real Reasons You Had a Nightmare Last Night

Are bad dreams keeping you up at night? Nightmares aren’t just for children—they’re actually very common in adults.

Nearly 70 percent of people have adult nightmares (especially during the pandemic)—with an amazing 30 percent of us reporting that these terrifying dreams jerk us out of sleep as often as once a month. It’s time to put our sleep deprivation to rest and conquer this issue head on.

(Related: 3 AM and Wide Awake? Here’s How to Sleep Through the Night)

What triggers adult nightmares?

Adult nightmares can be caused by medications, genes, degenerative neurological diseases like Alzheimer’s, last night’s tamales, traumatic events in the present, never-healed wounds from the past that a recent event has unmasked, and gut-level threats to health, safety, and the very sense of who you are.

Those who put a lid on expressing how they feel in response to stressful events during the day are likely to be taken for a ride by those emotions in the form of nightmares at night. And some, particularly people who are open and sensitive, may have a “thin” boundary between what’s real and what’s a dream. This means that their waking life is more than likely to stir up their night life and cause some pretty hairy dreams.

“A nightmare is a dysfunctional dream,” explains Rosalind Cartwright, director of the sleep disorder service at Rush-Presbyterian-St. Luke’s Medical Center in Chicago. Instead of integrating the day’s events and feelings with older, stored memories and defusing negative emotions—which is what some researchers feel a dream is supposed to do—the emotions your brain is processing overload your circuits, prevent their integration into older memories, and jerk you from sleep.

If you’re in a bad car accident, for example, you may not be able to process all the negative emotions the accident generates right away, says Cartwright. The fear and your sense of vulnerability and mortality are overwhelming. So you may have nightmares for a while as your mind keeps working away at integrating your feelings. Once it does, however, the nightmares go away.

As Cartwright writes in her book Crisis Dreaming, “Nightmares are a cry for resolution for finding a way to incorporate the terrible experience into our lives. Occasional nightmares are normal,” she adds. “But not nightly, and not over and over again.”

(Related: 4 Sleep Hacks to Make Sure You Get Your Vitamin Zzz)

How to banish adult nightmares for good

Adult nightmares are a sign of overload. Check with a doctor, psychiatrist or therapist if you’re depressed, if they recur, or if you discover that your dreams are caused by distressing feelings from the past that have been triggered by current events. According to Cartwright, here are some ways to keep your bad dreams at bay:

1. Recognize that you’re having a nightmare

This may sound impossible to do, but it’s not. Simply resolve that you’re going to do this before you fall asleep. It may take a few tries, but you’ll get the hang of it.

2. Stop your dream

Believe it or not, you can do it. Start by recognizing that the dream you are having is bad.

3. Change your dream ending

Turn what’s negative into something positive. You may have to wake up to do it, but eventually you’ll be able to tell yourself to write a better ending as you sleep.

4. Keep a dream diary

Keep a dream journal at your bedside and write down your dreams every morning—all of your dreams, not just the nightmares. Then periodically review the ones that trouble you and try to figure out why they’re upsetting.

This story was originally published in November 2017.

If you are still having trouble sleeping, check out these foolproof ways to make sure you get a good night’s rest.

Originally Published in Best Health Canada