We have all had them: the scary dreams of being chased by an ax murderer or giving a presentation for which you're not prepared (or not wearing pants). Nightmares can be stressful as well as terrifying, and they can make you lose a lot of sleep. There are many different reasons nightmares happen. Some are very simple, like eating too much or at the wrong time, while others are complex and based on past experiences and traumas.

Stress and Anxiety

Worry is one of the most common causes of sleeplessness and, perhaps not surprisingly, it can also disturb sleep. Stressors and anxieties that plague you during the day can manifest themselves as dreams full of monsters, missed tests, or other stressful situations. The exact thing causing your stress could manifest in the dream, or it may take an entirely different, ominous form.

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Depression is another mood condition that can cause nightmares. Sadness, listlessness, and other symptoms can fuel bad dreams. If you are not happy during the day, the chances are slim that your dreams will be full of sunshine and rainbows. Unfortunately, poor sleep due to nightmares can lead to sleep deprivation, which in turn worsens depression.

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Sleep Deprivation

Ironically, a lack of good, quality sleep can lead to more nightmares. If you have not been sleeping much or you are sleeping more lightly than usual, severe nightmares can keep you up even longer. It is a cruel cycle that only ends when you find a way to restore balance in your wake/sleep cycle. If you suspect your nightmares are due to lack of sleep, try improving and regularizing your sleep schedule, and consider increasing the hours you sleep, if you want.

what causes nightmares

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Eating at the Wrong Time

Many of us have a tendency to eat a large snack not long before bedtime, or perhaps even in the middle of the night. Eating that close to the time you should be sleeping jumpstarts your metabolism, leaving it running when it should be slowing down for the night. This prompts less than ideal chemical reactions for this hour. Those reactions and the body's more alert state can lead to nightmares and insomnia.

eating and nightmares

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Eating the Wrong Things

Eating the wrong foods can cause nightmares just as easily as eating at the wrong time. Junk food and foods that are very spicy are notorious for triggering more brainwaves. These brainwaves make the mind more active than it should be at bedtime, and nightmares appear as a result. Eating several hours before bedtime is best, and if is it close to the end of the night, try limiting yourself to only healthy, easily digested snacks that won't keep you up. Some studies suggest foods like almonds, kiwi, and white rice are suitable for pre-sleep noshing.

diet and nightmares

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Sleep Apnea

Sleep disorders like sleep apnea can lead to nightmares if the body is unable to enter a state of secure, restful sleep. The condition causes people to periodically stop breathing for a time in the middle of the night, which can cause them to jolt awake, and bring on nightmares when the brain is plunged into survival mode. For some people, the sound of a sleep apnea machine can fuel these nightmares.

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Restless Leg Syndrome

Restless leg syndrome, a sleep disorder that prevents the legs from relaxing during the night, can cause nightmares. The body is not at rest, so neither is the brain, which is always trying to find a reason why the body is doing what it is doing. In this case, it comes up with nightmares to explain what is happening, which leads to more restless nights.

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Certain medications, such as antidepressants, can change the balance of the chemicals in your brain. This chemical change can lead to more nightmares, as well as insomnia and other related conditions. If you suspect antidepressants are to blame for your nightmares, talk to your doctor before changing your medication. The solution could be as simple as altering the dosage or brand. Never make this sort of change without the input of a doctor, however, as this could end up causing even more problems.


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The withdrawal process that comes with going off of drugs, alcohol, or certain medications can cause nightmares and a whole host of other physical and mental symptoms. The brain is used to depending on a regularly administered substance to feel a certain way, and when that substance is gone, the brain goes to war, trying to re-establish some sort of balance. A brain at war with itself is a brain that is more prone to nightmares and other sleep disturbances.


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Post-traumatic stress disorder or PTSD is the cause of many nightmares. In this case, the dreams are caused by a past trauma from which the person cannot move on. Memories are relived in one's dreams, which can be very vivid and alarming. Taking steps to manage symptoms of PTSD during the waking hours can go a long way toward ending the nightmares it causes in sleep.

PTSD nightmares

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