Sleep Disorders Other Problems Nightmares

Nightmares in children and adults are not uncommon, but a small segment of the population suffers from nightmares on a regular basis. The vivid nature of nightmares can cause them to remain in memory long after waking.

Causes of Nightmares

Nightmares can occur due to a variety of physical, mental and emotional causes. Common triggers of nightmares include:

  • Alcohol consumption
  • Anxiety
  • Fever
  • Post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD)
  • Pregnancy
  • Prescription or illicit drugs
  • Psychiatric illness
  • Stress
  • Withdrawals from addictive drugs.

In adults, nightmares seem to be more common in individuals who are artistic, creative or particularly sensitive to stress.

Night Terrors and Nightmares in Children

Nightmares in children are common. Children may wake up frightened or distressed after nightmares, and may need comforting before they can sleep again.

Night terrors are different from nightmares in children. Unlike nightmares, which happen during REM sleep, night terrors occur during non-REM sleep. During night terrors the child may scream, sweat and breathe rapidly. The child’s pupils are often enlarged. Some children sleepwalk during night terrors.

During night terrors children resist comfort. If your child is having a night terror, speak to him calmly and don’t yell at or shake him. Children usually have no memory of night terrors upon awakening.

Treating Nightmares

Treatment for nightmares varies, depending on the root cause of the problem. For example, while someone with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) may need therapy and prescription drugs to reduce nightmares, a person experiencing drug withdrawal may have to endure nightmares until after detox ends.

Nightmares in children are rarely a sign of a serious problem, but repeated traumatic nightmares may require the help of a therapist. Therapists can help children understand the meaning of dreams and identify their source.

Nightmares can also encourage self-exploration in adults. Some people use dream interpretation to turn the negative experience of having a nightmare into a positive learning experience.

Since most occasional nightmares are linked to stress, incorporating more exercise, relaxation techniques and meditation into daily life can help reduce the occurrence of nightmares. Should nightmares persist, consult a doctor.

Nightmares and the Meaning of Dreams

The meaning of dreams is debatable at best, and perhaps even more so when nightmares are concerned.

While many dream interpretation systems exist, most are unscientific. Psychotherapy may explore the meaning of dreams, but the goal is to help the individual gain insight into his or her thought processes and personal issues rather than decode the meaning of dreams in a literal sense.

Books that provide lists of dream images and their meanings are of limited help in dream interpretation, as not everyone interprets events or images in the same way.

While the meaning of dreams and nightmares is open to debate, the results of nightmares are better understood. Nightmares can trigger a range of emotions, including anger, anxiety, depression, fear and guilt. None of these emotions encourage sleep after nightmares.


American Academy of Family Physicians. (2009). Nightmares and night terrors in children. Retrieved September 14, 2010, from

Encyclopedia of Mental Disorders. (2010). Nightmare disorder. Retrieved August 10, 2010, from

International Association for the Study of Dreams. (2010). Common questions about nightmares. Retrieved August 10, 2010, from