The most common underlying reason for frequent or recurring nightmares is pre-existing emotional distress.
The most common underlying reason for frequent or recurring nightmares is pre-existing emotional distress.

Everyone is bound to have a nightmare or two throughout their lives. But in 3% to 7% of the U.S. population, recurring nightmares become so problematic that they disrupt your daily life.

A nightmare is a dream that generates frightening images and negative emotions like fear, anxiety, panic, and despair. You might wake up from a nightmare in a state of distress, with an increased heart rate and perspiration.

Nightmares happen during rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. REM occurs toward the end of the night and is defined by quick eye movements, an irregular heartbeat, and fast breathing.

Frequent nightmares are more common in children than adults. They most often occur in children between the ages of three to six years old. The children tend to outgrow the problem around the age of 10, but sometimes the nightmares continue into adulthood or begin when you’re fully grown.

Universal causes and solutions for nightmares

The most common underlying reason for frequent or recurring nightmares is pre-existing emotional distress. This is true no matter how old you are. The emotions we experience during the day appear in our dreams.

Worry, stress, and anxiety about situations in your life can impact your body in many different ways. Nightmares are one of the symptoms of emotional distress.

In these cases, the best solution is to identify the cause and deal with it. Sometimes just consciously acknowledging that something is stressing you out can help relieve your nightmares.

Everyone who deals with frequent nightmares would benefit from a regular sleep schedule that ensures enough sleep every night. Steady sleep habits cut down on naps and reduce any nightmares that are caused by irregular sleep patterns.

You should also make sure that you spend the half-hour or hour before bed doing something relaxing. Make sure you don’t involve any scary content, or you may fuel your anxiety.

Nightmare causes in children

Some reasons nightmares are more common in children than adults include:

  • School anxiety
  • Bullying
  • Moving homes or changing schools
  • Sleeping in uncommon position

How to deal with nightmares in children

To help your child deal with their nightmares, make them feel safe. There are several ways you can do this, including:

  • Check in on them every few minutes after they’ve gone to sleep.
  • Stay with them for a little while when they wake up in the middle of the night.
  • Talk to them about their fears and anxieties and help them find solutions.
  • Talk to them about the dreams themselves.

You can get creative when dealing with your child’s nightmares. Try drawing pictures of what’s bothering them. Then tear the pictures up and throw them away in a symbolic gesture.

Nightmare causes in adults

Some reasons for nightmares are more likely to affect adults than children, though some of these could apply to children as well. Triggers include:

How to deal with nightmares in adults

Ways to deal with nightmares in adults include:

Sometimes you’ll need to see a counselor or therapist for help with severe emotional issues. Therapy can also be helpful for children who have been through traumatic situations.

A specific type of cognitive therapy called image rehearsal therapy (IRT) has had positive results for people with PTSD.

Anyone who has recurrent dreams can try the technique. The steps are as follows:

  • Remember and write down the dream that’s bothering you
  • Then rewrite the ending into something that doesn’t scare you or that puts you in control
  • Rehearse the dream with your invented ending every night before you go to sleep

This method often helps reduce the frequency and amount of distress caused by recurrent nightmares — so it’s at least worth a try.

You should talk to your doctor if these solutions don’t work and you or your child find nightmares constantly disrupt your daily life.


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Medically Reviewed on 1/10/2022
Cleveland Clinic: "Nightmares in Children."

Harvard Medical School: "Nightmares and the Brain."

Nemours Teens Health: "How Can I Stop My Nightmares?"

National Health Service: "Night terrors and nightmares."

Stanford Health Care: "Nightmares."