Common Nightmares and Its Impact on Mental Health


Nightmares are a disturbing dream which awakens you from your sleep and even causes anxiety and fear which may make it difficult to fall asleep again. It is associated with negative feelings which might persist even the following day. They are quite a common phenomenon, but nightmare disorders are a rare condition. It usually occurs in the second half of the night and when you are in the stage of REM (rapid eye movement) sleep.

What Triggers A Nightmare?

Nightmares can be triggered by a range of factors like:

  • Scary Books and Movies: some people, especially kids, get influenced by scary movies and books and have nightmares.
  • Stress or Anxiety: Ordinary stressors of daily life can also trigger nightmares, like having exam stress, or a problem at home or school. Also going through a major change in life like moving places or the death of a loved one is a major trigger of nightmares. Having anxiety is associated with an elevated risk of nightmares.
  • Trauma: Nightmares are common after a traumatic event like an accident, physical abuse, sexual abuse, etc. People suffering from PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) are more prone to have nightmares.
  • Sleep Deprivation: Irregular sleep schedules can change and intervene with the amount of sleep you get, hence increasing the probability of you getting nightmares. Insomnia also increases your risk of getting nightmares.
  • Medications and substances: Some prescribed drugs like beta blockers, anti-depressants, drugs used for treating Parkinson’s disease, etc. can trigger nightmares. Also, substance abuse like drugs and alcohol can have severe effects on nightmares and sleep routines.

Also Read: Transforming Nightmares into silent Dreams

What Are The Common Nightmares Experienced?

There are different research studies conducted to find the most common themes around nightmares. One research study recorded 10000 dreams from 331 participants for 2 weeks. The most common of them were:

  • Physical aggression was the most common theme of nightmare people had. Nearly more than half of the people reported having been assaulted or threatened in their dreams.
  • Interpersonal conflict came next time, it included conflict or negative experiences with another individual but without violence. For example, getting humiliated or having an intense argument.
  • Failed or helplessness is the next recurring theme of nightmares. It involves being blocked by something from reaching our goal. For example, you may make a mistake that will make you fail, or being unable to speak makes you helpless.
  • Being chased was another where the individuals ran away from threatening forces or something in their dreams. As it gets closer there is a need for escape resulting in terror.
  • An evil presence like some ghost or monster beside you was another theme. People may also experience feelings of the presence without any visible creature.
  • Health-related concerns and dying are the classic nightmares that may be the result of worry for the person. Maybe the person in question is very sick, hence out of worry we might dream such a thing.
  • Accidents may involve a car crash falling off a cliff, drowning, etc. Most people startle awake in the middle of a falling nightmare.
  • Insects and vermin by which you get creeped out might show up in your dreams. Such as rats, cockroaches, flies, spiders, or snakes might show up in your dreams when you try to protect yourself from them.

Gender Disparities and Survey Insights

While Another study published in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine surveyed around 1200 participants, to find common themes of nightmares. The results found several common themes: Nineteen percent of individuals, mostly dreamed of a loved one’s death or injury; fifteen percent were accidents; eighteen percent was a failure or helpless; 18% were physical aggressiveness; fourteen% had nightmares of being pursued Eleven percent were mortality or health-related issues.

Also Read: Do you Know these Facts about Dreams?

Fascinatingly, the study’s findings also revealed several gender-specific variations on nightmare motifs. For instance, more women than men reported having nightmares involving accidents and helplessness, whereas more men reported themes like physical violence and health-related worries.

Similar findings were discovered in another Amerisleep survey that examined certain nightmares in 2,000 survey participants. Its survey revealed that falling and being chased were the two nightmare scenarios that people reported having the most. Additionally, over 50% of survey participants said they commonly had nightmares involving dying, being lost, or being trapped.

The aforementioned survey’s results also revealed notable variations between men’s and women’s reported dreams, particularly in regard to mortality. Compared to just 39% of males, over 60% of women in this poll said they had nightmares about a loved one dying. Additionally, women were more likely than males to experience nightmares in which a friend or relative who has passed away visits them (64.3% versus 35.6%).

Nightmares and Mental Health:

We know that nightmares get triggered by various mental health concerns like anxiety, stress, and trauma. The most studied cause of nightmares is PTSD, which is post-traumatic stress disorder. Nightmares are the most common complaints of people suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and therefore are a criterion for the diagnosis of the disorder. These nightmares are recurring and can also occur more than once a day. Sometimes nightmares just result from everyday stressors, which are quite common. But if the nightmares are very intense and frequently occurring it causes a problem or might be a result of an underlying problem. Chronic nightmares are frequent in psychiatric disorders like personality and PTSD.

Also Read: 10 Things to Do When Your Dreams Do Not Come True

To better understand the association between nightmares and mood disorders or psychotic disorders, a systematic literature review was conducted from relevant databases like PubMed, Cochrane Library, and PsycINFO. The results of the study showed that the Individuals with mood or psychosis disorders had more frequent nightmares (more than two times higher) compared to healthy controls. Patients with more frequent nightmares also scored higher on the suicidality scale and had a higher rate of previous attempts at suicide. The severity of the distress associated with nightmares was not related to the frequency of nightmares but rather to the severity of the psychiatric disorder. Therefore, it is clear that nightmares play an over-representative role in mood and/or psychiatric disorders. The nightmares including being chased, or feeling trapped can be a manifestation of anxiety. The nightmares of failure and helplessness can represent and are characteristic of people with depression or negative self-concept.

Do They Mean Anything?

Nightmares might or might not mean anything. There are some theories that explain dreams. One is the most famous psychoanalytic dream analysis by Sigmund Freud. He suggests that dreams represent subconscious needs and desires. It has two parts: latent content and manifest content, where manifest content is the actual dream that happened. It includes the storyline, characters, and every surface-level information about the dream. The latent content is the hidden deeper meaning of the dream, which our subconscious is trying to represent. While this theory is not supported by much evidence, it is used in the psychoanalysis method of therapy.

Another theory of dreams is the cognitive theory which explains the role of cognitive processes like memory consolidation and problem solving in dream formation. According to this perspective, dreams reflect ongoing cognitive activities in the brain and mental processing during sleep, such as memory consolidation, emotional regulation, and rehearsal of future scenarios. Hence, seeing any nightmare might be because of a dangerous movie you watched or the fearful anticipation of the future.

Also Read: How trauma affects emotional development in children?


It is essential to recognize that while nightmares can be distressing, they often serve as a natural way for the mind to process emotions and experiences. However, frequent, and recurring nightmares that significantly disrupt sleep and impair daily functioning might mean you need professional attention. Mental health professionals can help individuals explore the underlying cause of their nightmares and develop strategies for coping and improving overall mental well-being.

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