What are nightmares made of? Here’s the science behind them

5 min readJul 15, 2020


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We have all experienced bad dreams at some point in life, but ironically, none of us are fully aware of the reason behind their occurrence and how to deal with them. There are various reasons which stand responsible for getting nightmares like stress, irregular sleep, anxiety, certain medications, or even mental health disorders; however, the most common studied cause is post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Sleep and nightmares are interlinked. Nightmares are elaborate dreams that evoke feelings of sadness, anxiety, and fear, thereby causing the sleeper to wake up to avoid the perceived danger. These dream sequences can keep lingering in the mind even after waking up and can make it hard to go back to sleep, hence causing stress and tiredness all through the day.

It is quite normal to have isolated incidents of bad dreams at some point in life, but recurrent nightmares should not be ignored.

Let us get deep into knowing more about this distressing affliction.

What are nightmares?

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Dreams that cause terror, anxiety, distress and even horror are termed as nightmares. They generally occur during the later part of the night, mostly during rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. The sleeper tends to wake up and even remember the sequence of actions that had taken place in their dreams.

Nightmares that take place just once are usually a consequence of a reaction to some stress, and according to some clinicians, these dreams help an individual work through their internal trauma. However, when these nightmares occur frequently, they tend to lay a detrimental effect on our mental health and ability to function throughout the day. This condition is termed as a Nightmare Disorder.

Some of the most common symptoms of nightmare disorders are:

  • Walking up repeatedly, recollecting a scary dream that revolves around threats to survival, security, or physical integrity.
  • Waking up with a sudden sense of alertness and orientation
  • A poor quality sleep responsible for jeopardizing your work and social life.
  • Experiencing these symptoms without having any history of medication or medical condition.

The primary causes of nightmares

Nightmares have been seen to be more common in girls than boys. They start in childhood, at around age 10. In adults, however, nightmares occur as a result of a subconscious attempt to face any significant worries or traumas that a person may be living with. They generally take place during REM sleep, when the human brain produces proteins to stimulate learning. At the same time, signals from the brain are transmitted to the limbs to cause temporary paralysis in an attempt to stop them from acting out their virtual dreams in real life.

The theory behind this states that the human brain tries to regulate and interpret the signals that it receives during REM sleep. Hence, to execute this, a story is created by the brain out of the fragmented brain activity. It has been observed that in about 60% of cases, major life events get preceded with the onset of nightmares, be it a break-up, an illness, or even bereavement. Nightmares are closely associated even with high-stress levels, anxiety and even sleep disorders. Increasing metabolism through excessive intake of food just before bedtime also raises the possibility of experiencing bad dreams.

How to handle nightmares?

Occasional nightmares are experienced by almost 50% of the adult population all across the length and breadth of the globe. They, however, require no treatment at all. But, for the 1% who fall prey to regular nightmares, there are methods in which these bad dreams can be curtailed and controlled to quite an extent.

  • The first and foremost step towards this is to get to the root cause of these negative dreams. This can be done by asking yourself the cause of your worry or anxiety. Also, the intensity of your dreams’ negativity can be reduced even by seeking help from a therapist or speaking to a loved one.
  • People who are on regular medications should find out about their potential side effects as many prescribed drugs can impact your sleep quality largely and cause nightmares too.
  • Working on improving your overall sleep quality can also prove to be of great help in sleeping peacefully and thereby avoiding bad dreams from showing up again and again.
  • The National Sleep Foundation suggests tips for ensuring and promoting good quality sleep. These include avoiding caffeine, alcohol and nicotine intake, meditating and exercising regularly, sticking to a proper schedule, rising with the sun, unwinding with a book before hitting the bed, and also maintaining the room temperature at a comfortable level.
  • A comfortable mattress can also help drastically in improving your quality of sleep and letting you rest comfortably at night. All these, together, can help you avoid getting nightmares. However, to get your hands on a sturdy, price-friendly, and comfortable mattress, you can visit the website www.wakefit.co, a one-stop destination for all your mattress queries and needs.

Final Take

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Even though nightmares are regarded as negative attributes and a source of confusion and anxiety for most, researchers claim that nightmares can be quite beneficial as well. According to Deirdre Barrett, a psychologist at Harvard University, nightmares are a medium through which a person’s attention is diverted towards issues that they need to address immediately. He claims that nightmares were probably evolved to help in making people anxious about potential dangers. Also, he further states that analysing a bad dream can make a person view its correlation with their daytime worries.

Last, but not least, whatever be the cause of nightmares, they may jeopardize one’s health if they consistently continue to disturb one’s sleep. Hence, it is important to address the issue at the right time and bid adieu to horrifying dreams by taking the necessary precautions and steps to remove this patch of negativity from one’s daily regime.

A peaceful night’s sleep is one of the most basic requirements which we all crave for. It is also the simplest route to put all anxieties and inhibitions to rest. However, the best way to achieve it is to adapt to lifestyle hacks that work best with your regular regime and living standards.




Wakefit is a research and innovation driven sleep solutions company founded with a vision to democratize sleep in India.