What causes recurring nightmares?

November 30, 2020 5 mins read
What causes recurring nightmares?

Many of us have had recurring nightmares. You have the same bad dream over and over, waking up suddenly, drenched in a cold sweat while it feels like your heart is pounding.

But what is behind these terrible dreams? No doubt you want to know why you keep returning to the same nocturnal scenarios or themes. Fortunately, figuring out what is behind your recurring nightmares could be the first step in dealing with them.

What are recurring nightmares?

Recurring nightmares are bad dreams which often repeat over a long period and can leave you feeling fearful, anxious or worried. These disturbing dreams are linked with negative feelings, such as anxiety or fear.

Some studies refer to recurring nightmares as threat rehearsals. So when you feel threatened by a person or situation in real life, your mind can replay that as if it were a reality in a nightmare. Other research points to nightmares as a way for you to process your feelings. If you are stressed or worried about something, that may come up in a recurring nightmare which could have themes of helplessness, for instance.

What causes recurring nightmares?

Sleep specialists have discovered that nightmares have their roots in various psychological triggers. Some of the factors leading to nightmares are related to sleep disorders and how they affect you during sleep.

Stress or anxiety

Have you ever gone through a major life-changing event like a bad break-up or moved towns? Or are you trying to cope with the everyday stress and anxiety of work and home? To deal with this stress, your body can attempt to process your emotions of uncertainty, anxiety and frustration through your subconscious, which triggers recurring nightmares.

You see, if you don’t deal with the stress you feel (think exercise or seeing a therapist to talk through it), then your mind looks for an outlet, which is what can happen when you have the same scary dream over and over.

Post-traumatic stress disorder

Flashbacks to traumatic events in nightmares are a hallmark of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). About 71% of people with PTSD have recurring nightmares which can affect their sleep quality. Waking up abruptly at night and feeling depressed because of the nightmares can worsen PTSD.

A 2017 study analysed how childhood trauma can result in nightmares because those memories and emotions might not have been processed. The nightmares you could experience would be connected to issues of self-worth, sickness or abandonment.

Sleep disorders

Some sleep disorders can cause recurring nightmares. For instance, sleep apnea is a disorder where you wake up throughout the night, sometimes gasping for air as your airways become blocked.

If you experience disruptions at any point in your sleep cycle, it could lead to recurring nightmares. So if you wake up during REM sleep, the sleep stage in which your memories are being processed and stored, you’re more likely to experience a recurring nightmare.

What does your nightmare mean?

Some nightmares show up more commonly than others. Death, falling and being naked in public are some of the most common nightmares. Death can symbolise new beginnings. As the nervous system quietens and your muscles relax, the shift can trigger a sensation of falling in a dream, while being naked can embody your insecurities towards a person or situation.

How to prevent recurring nightmares

  • Sleep in a room that is conducive to rest. This means sleep in a dark room and if you’re apprehensive about the dark then keep a night lamp by your bedside.
  • Keep your room well ventilated and airy. Fresh air helps you sleep better.
  • Avoid staying up watching TV or looking at the latest news on your social media feeds. The less light you’re exposed to through these devices, you’ll contribute to a peaceful sleep environment.
  • Avoid stimulants like coffee and nicotine. Downing a coffee or smoking before bedtime will affect your efforts to sleep. Instead drink water, read a book or take a warm bath before bed to relax.
  • Get consistent rest. Aim to sleep at the same time and wake up at the same time every day. Nap if you feel tired during the day so that you can feel recharged and emotionally balanced.
  • Psychotherapists have suggested using visualisation as a tool to prevent the nightmare from happening again. So before going to sleep, you would picture the dream but with a different ending.
  • Another technique is to rewrite the ending of the dream but in a non-violent way. If your nightmare is always about fighting someone, instead of rewriting that you won, write about a peaceful ending.
  • Try image rehearsal therapy (IRT) which is a cognitive-behavioural treatment to go through the visuals in your recurring nightmares to reduce the trauma experienced from them.
  • Cognitive behavioural therapy is a form of psychotherapy for people with PTSD. Trauma is at the centre of this therapy as you work through the traumatic events which could be replaying in your mind as recurring nightmares.
  • Sleep hypnosis uses meditation and subliminal messages to communicate with your subconscious mind and move it past the recurring nightmare.
  • Take a sleep study to diagnose a sleep disorder if that could be the underlying condition behind your recurring nightmares.

Recurring nightmares can cause anxiety. You’re not alone as many people have experienced such nightmares. The key is to identify the problem, and by quickly dealing with frightening dreams, you can set yourself up for sleep serenity and fulfilment in every sphere of your life.