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Nightmares are dreams that are scary or disturbing. The themes of nightmares vary widely from person-to-person, but common themes include being chased, falling, or feeling lost or trapped. Nightmares can cause you to feel various emotions, including:
You may continue to experience these emotions even after you wake up.
People of all ages have nightmares. However, nightmares are more common in children, especially those under age 10. Girls are more likely to be troubled by their nightmares than boys. Nightmares seem to be a part of normal development, and except in the case of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), they usually aren’t symptoms of any underlying medical condition or mental disorder.
However, nightmares can become a problem if they persist and interrupt your sleep pattern. This can lead to insomnia and difficulty functioning during the day. Consult with your doctor if you are having trouble coping with nightmares.
Nightmares can be triggered by a variety of factors, including:
It is important to note that nightmares aren’t the same as sleepwalking, also called somnambulism, which causes a person to walk around while still asleep. They also differ from night terrors, also known as sleep terrors. Children who have night terrors sleep through the episodes and usually don’t recall the incidents in the morning. They may also have a tendency to sleepwalk or urinate in bed during night terrors. Night terrors usually stop once a child reaches puberty. However, some adults may have night terrors and experience limited dream recall, especially during times of stress.
Most children and adults have nightmares from time to time. However, you should schedule an appointment with your doctor if nightmares persist over an extended period of time, disrupt your sleep patterns, and interfere with your ability to function during the day.
Your doctor will ask you questions about your use of stimulants, such as caffeine, alcohol, and certain illegal drugs. They will also ask you about any prescription or over-the-counter medications and supplements you are currently taking. If you believe a new medication is prompting your nightmares, ask your doctor if there is an alternative treatment that you can try.
There are no specific tests for diagnosing nightmares. However, your doctor may advise you to undergo a sleep study. During a sleep study, you spend the night in a laboratory. Sensors monitor various functions, including your:
If your doctor suspects that your nightmares may be caused by an underlying condition, such as PTSD or anxiety, then they may run other tests.
Treatment usually isn’t required for nightmares. However, any underlying medical or mental health problems should be addressed.
Your doctor may recommend counseling or stress-reduction techniques if any of the following conditions is triggering your nightmares:
In rare cases, medication for sleep disturbances may be advised.
Lifestyle changes may help decrease the frequency of your nightmares. You can try:
If your child is having frequent nightmares, encourage them to talk about their nightmares. Explain that nightmares can’t hurt them. Other techniques include:
Written by: Ann Pietrangelo
Medically reviewed on: Feb 23, 2016: Timothy J. Legg, PhD, PMHNP-BC
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