If any time of year will trigger nightmares, it’s probably the fall season. Autumn begins with scary movies at Halloween and continues through the stress of back to back to back holidays Thanksgiving through New Year’s Day. It’s not to say that a traditionally happy time of year itself would cause nightmares, but stress can. Other major life events such as marriage, divorce, pregnancy and starting a new job all can provoke nightmares, as well.*
The difference between dreams and nightmares is that nightmares often elicit feelings of fear, terror, distress, or anxiety and can cause the sleeper to wake up. This is one reason why you can remember nightmares better than most dreams. While nightmares seem more common in children, one study found that 85 percent of adults had reported having at least one nightmare in the previous year.
What influences dream content? Before we get to whether nightmares can be prevented, let’s look at what impacts dreams. The list is long, but some stimuli include:
- Your day-to-day experiences, especially situations that cause anxiety or stress. Ever have a bad dream about the big meeting you have tomorrow? Dreams are often a time for your brain to work through things that are happening in real life, so it makes sense that snippets of your dream reflect something you have or will soon experience.
- Movies and other forms of entertainment you’ve recently experienced. This is where those Halloween horror films may come into play. Something that made you experience heightened emotion in real life (whether scary or sad) can also play out in your mind after your head hits the pillow that night.
- Sleep deprivation or sleep disorders. Research has shown that people who experienced insomnia, sleep apnea and other sleep problems were more likely to have bad dreams and nightmares.
So, can you prevent nightmares?
The short answer is that you cannot prevent nightmares entirely, especially given the above factors that influence dreams in general. However, there are steps you can take to sleep more soundly, which can in turn help reduce the chance of nightmares. Proper sleep hygiene helps set the stage for a restful night’s sleep. Make sure your bedroom is cool, dark, and quiet and that you’re sticking to a regular sleep and wake time schedule. You can also try managing stress throughout the day so you’re mind isn’t racing at night by exercising during the day and doing yoga or enjoying quiet time before bed.
Nightmares are not to be confused with night terrors, a sleep problem that is less common than nightmares and mostly affects young children. Check out Iowa Sleep’s previous post to learn more about the difference between nightmares and night terrors. If you have questions about nightmares or suspect you or a loved one is experiencing night terrors, let us know using our online form.
*If traumatic life experiences are causing nightmares, you may need to consider professional medical or psychiatric help.