Home / Blog December 18, 2023

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What Do Nightmares Mean?

We know so much about the human body, yet nightmares and dreams continue to remain a mystery – perhaps that is why they hold such power over us. Is it normal to have nightmares every night? Keep on reading to find out why you keep having nightmares every night, and how to reduce them.

What Do Nightmares Mean


Nightmares are vivid and distressing dreams that evoke strong negative emotional reactions; chronic nightmares can be indicative of underlying stressors or trauma, requiring attention and intervention.

Understanding the causes of nightmares, including stress, anxiety, medications, sleep disorders, and trauma, is crucial in addressing and managing these distressing dreams.

There are lifestyle changes you can make, like optimizing your sleep routine and environment, to help reduce nightmares; but you should seek therapy or counseling if you have chronic nightmares. 

Did you know?
Nightmares are more common in children than in adults – this is normal unless the severity and intensity of their nightmares are interfering with their development

Nightmares, those spine-chilling journeys into the realms of the subconscious, have long fascinated and frightened humans. We've all experienced the heart-pounding terror of being chased, falling endlessly, or facing supernatural entities in our dreams. But what do these haunting visions mean?

In this blog post, we'll delve into the mysterious world of nightmares, try to decipher their meanings, unravel the causes behind them, investigate their connection with trauma, and explore effective strategies to reduce their frequency.

What Are Nightmares?

Nightmares are vivid, distressing dreams that evoke strong emotional reactions, often of fear, anxiety, or despair. Unlike ordinary dreams, nightmares jolt us awake, leaving us in a state of panic and unease. During a nightmare, the dreamer encounters threatening situations, supernatural entities, or relive past traumas, creating a sense of terror and helplessness.

Nightmares can be more than just a bad dream – for one percent of the population, chronic nightmares in adults are so debilitating that they are diagnosed with nightmare disorder. People who suffer from nightmare disorder repeatedly wake up alert and oriented, with detailed memories of frightening dreams about threats to their survival. This can happen despite having no direct causes of nightmare disorder, such as general medical conditions, medications, or substance use.

While you may not be dealing with a full-fledged nightmare disorder, unpleasant dreams can still give you plenty of grief and leave you feeling exhausted. It’s understandable that you would want to figure out why nightmares occur and what causes bad dreams, so that you can treat the issue.

What Are Nightmares?

How Do We Have Nightmares?

Dreams are understood to be recent autobiographical episodes that become woven with past memories to create a new memory; nightmares are simply dreams that cause a strong but unpleasant emotional response.

Dreams are part of the brain’s default network — a system of interconnected brains sturcturs — that remains active during quiet periods. REM sleep is one example of a quiet period, characterized by rapid eye movement, irregular heartbeat, and increased rates of respiration; it is divided into four or five periods that make up about 20% of our sleep.

Nightmares tend to happen during the period of sleep when REM intervals lengthen.. It is during these REM episodes that brain structures in the default network exert influence and you’re usually able to vividly recall dreams that occur in this stage. We dream and have nightmares most often as we emerge from REM sleep because we tend to dream on the sleep-wake cusp

What Do Nightmares Mean?

Dreams are our brain’s way of organizing events of the day, memories, and images into vivid, symbolic, and often nonsensical storylines; nightmares in particular are the dreams that are related to processing unresolved negative emotions, so the meaning of nightmares can be linked to unmet psychological needs or frustration with life experiences.

Nightmares can be representations of unresolved conflicts, repressed emotions, or unacknowledged fears, so analyzing nightmares can offer valuable insights into our subconscious minds. For example, the meaning of recurring nightmares might indicate persistent stressors in our lives that need attention, while specific themes in nightmares can point toward hidden anxieties.

Unfortunately, linking nightmares to stressors in your life isn’t always easy – our nightmares tend to reflect our emotional state through metaphors, rather than literal representations, except when caused by trauma. Two people may experience similar nightmares with common themes, such as being chased by a stranger, but for wildly different reasons, so it is difficult to find a clear meaning for your nightmares.

No two minds or experiences are identical, so the best way to figure out why you keep having nightmares is to think it through based on your own circumstances and experiences, rather than relying on sources that theorize the meanings of common nightmares.

Analyzing your emotions in your dream as well as any recurring themes or images is a good starting point. From there, you can try linking them together with any events or topics you were focused on when you were awake, and try to identify a common pattern. You can also try consulting a therapist to go through the details of your nightmares, and observe how your emotions influence your thoughts, and vice versa.

What Causes Nightmares?

What Causes Nightmares?

There are a few possible reasons we have nightmares. Below we’ve outlined the five most common causes.

Stress and Anxiety

High stress levels, especially those experienced before bedtime, can trigger nightmares. Stress hormones, like cortisol, disrupt normal sleep patterns, making us more susceptible to vivid and distressing dreams. If you are having nightmares during the day, they typically are triggered by intense emotions or unresolved thoughts intruding on your daydreams, leading to distressing mental imagery.

Medications and Substance Abuse

Certain medications and substances, such as antidepressants, narcotics, and withdrawal from drugs, can lead to nightmares. These substances can alter brain chemistry, affecting brain activity and neurotransmitters, which can cause changes to the way we dream and influence the content of dreams

Sleep Disorders

Sleep disorders can disrupt the sleep cycle, leading to a higher occurrence of nightmares. For example, those who suffer from sleep apnea find that their breathing tends to stop and start abruptly when they’re sleeping; the physical lack of oxygen from this irregular pattern of breathing can directly manifest in their subconscious in the form of nightmares about a lack of oxygen.

Illness and Fever

Conditions that cause a high fever or illness can result in bizarre dreams that sometimes escalate into nightmares. This is because regular sleep patterns are disrupted, the restless and fragmented sleep resulting in more vivid dreams. our body’s increased temperature can also affect your brain’s activity, making dreams more intense and vivid, as well as the physical discomfort and anxiety manifesting as nightmares. Fever-induced nightmares are more common in children than in adults.

Nightmares and Trauma

Nightmares and trauma are intricately connected. For individuals grappling with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), nightmares become a prevalent and distressing symptom, affecting not only their sleep but also exacerbating anxiety and fear.

Research shows that up to 80 percent of people with PTSD experience frequent nightmares. These nightmares, unlike typical stress-related dreams, often incorporate elements similar to the traumatic event. For instance, someone who has undergone a natural disaster might dream of high winds, flames, or floods. In some instances, these nightmares vividly replay the traumatic event, making the individual feel as though they are reliving the experience.

The most effective form of treatment for traumatic nightmares involves directly addressing the trauma or PTSD. Therapists often employ techniques such as cognitive-behavioral therapy for nightmares to help individuals process their traumatic experiences, and reduce the frequency and intensity of nightmares.

A key aspect of this therapy involves recognizing the individual's "window of tolerance," a state where they are calm and collected. Trauma-informed therapists work with individuals to identify when they are outside this window, experiencing hyperarousal (anxiety, restlessness) or hypoarousal (depression, numbness). Calming strategies are then employed to guide them back into their window of tolerance, promoting more restful sleep.

How To Reduce Nightmares

If you're plagued by frequent nightmares, there are several strategies and techniques that can help reduce the occurrence and severity of nightmares, allowing you to enjoy a more restful sleep. Here are some tips on how to stop having bad dreams:

Maintain a Relaxing Bedtime Routine

A soothing bedtime ritual can prepare your mind for restful sleep, minimizing the likelihood of nightmares. Engage in calming activities such as reading a book, practicing meditation, or taking a warm bath. These relaxation techniques create a peaceful transition into sleep, reducing the chances of experiencing distressing dreams.

Create a Comfortable Sleep Environment

Your bedroom's ambiance plays a vital role in your sleep quality. Ensure your sleep environment is conducive to rest by keeping the room cool, dark, and quiet, and also invest in comfortable pillows to enhance your sleep quality. If you are looking for supportive cuddles to cradle you into sleep, check out our Cuddler body pillow – it molds to your body for ergonomic support and helps melt away pressure.

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Limit Stimulants and Alcohol

The substances you consume can significantly impact your dreams. Try to avoid stimulants like caffeine and nicotine, especially in the hours leading up to bedtime, as these can interfere with your sleep cycle. Similarly, you should limit alcohol consumption, as it disrupts the REM (rapid eye movement) phase of sleep, where most dreaming occurs.

Practice Stress-Reduction Techniques

Chronic stress can contribute to the frequency and intensity of nightmares, so try engaging in stress-reduction techniques to alleviate anxiety and promote a sense of calm. Deep breathing exercises can help significantly with relaxation; try inhaling for 4 counts, holding for 7 counts, and then exhaling for 8 counts, and repeat it two more times. Practicing this technique before bedtime can promote relaxation, potentially reducing the occurrence of nightmares.

Progressive muscle relaxation can help you manage stress and anxiety effectively. This technique involves systematically tensing and then relaxing different parts of your body, typically starting at the top (your scalp) and ending at the bottom (your toes). Practicing PDMR immediately before bedtime can lead to a reduction in nightmares

Therapy and Counseling

If nightmares persist despite making these lifestyle changes, you should consider seeking therapy or counseling. Mental health professionals can help explore the root causes of your nightmares and employ therapeutic techniques to alleviate their impact, or prescribe medication that can help.

One example is imagery rehearsal therapy (IRT), where you rewrite the narrative of your nightmares. This can help you reduce the emotional charge of nightmares and empower you in your dreams, leading to a reduction in both the frequency and distress caused by nightmares.


Nightmares are intricate messages from our subconscious minds. Understanding the meaning of frequent bad dreams and the factors that contribute to their occurrence can empower us to confront our fears and anxieties.

By adopting healthy sleep habits, addressing underlying stressors, and seeking appropriate therapeutic interventions when necessary, you can transform your nightmares from harrowing experiences into realms of self-discovery and healing.