Nightmares: Why We Get Them & How to Deal


I have struggled with nightmares my whole life. Most people grow out of them after childhood, but lucky adults like me never seem to get rid of them; and, being an adult doesn’t make them any more manageable. In fact, as I’ve gotten older, my nightmares have worsened in intensity, frequency, and disturbing content. Everyone is different, especially when it comes to sleep patterns and sleep disruptions.

 Nightmares have affected my quality of sleep, my romantic relationships, my school and work performances (due to being tired), my willingness to travel or sleep somewhere unfamiliar, and my overall level of anxiety.

 This isn’t something I talk about much, but I know that lots of people struggle with nightmares, so I wanted to shed some light on a couple things: WHY nightmares may occur and some ways of HOW to cope with nightmares if you get them.

First off, a nightmare is defined as a very distressing dream that usually forces partial awakening.

 So now for the WHY.

 Reasons we may have nightmares:

 1)    Illness such as a fever

2)    Medication or drugs, or withdrawal from drugs

3)    Suffering a traumatic event such as surgery, an accident, an attack, or the death of a loved one

4)    Stress at home/work/school

5)    Psychological disorders such as anxiety and depression

6)    And, there are some people who experience nightmares even if there is no correlation to their waking lives. These people tend to be more creative, trusting, sensitive, and emotional than others.

(source: International Association for the Study of Dreams)

 Another side note: My environment also plays a part in how I sleep. If I am somewhere new, such as in a hotter climate or in a higher altitude, my body has a hard time getting comfortable, often causing me to then get nightmares.

There is no simple solution to nightmares, and the answer is different for everyone. If any of the above categories pertain to you, then your key to better sleep may consist of dealing with whatever you are going through. You may need to see a doctor if your nightmares are medically related, or a counselor should be seen if you are struggling emotionally or psychologically. There are plenty of resources to get this kind of help, especially if you are a student. If you are in high school, see your school counselor, and if you are in college, many schools offer free counseling for students. I took advantage of this opportunity in college, and I’m so glad that I did.

 For more practical solutions, I have compiled a list of things I do to help me each night. These are my own findings, so they aren’t meant to be medically or psychologically sound. These are just things that work for me.

1)    I avoid eating and drinking caffeine very close to bedtime.

Food and caffeine can make your brain more active before bed, which can cause bad dreams.

 2)    I have a routine when I go to bed.

 At least, I try. I get ready around the same time and do everything in the same order. It seems silly, but it works! Put on pajamas, brush teeth, wash face, etc. Then, I do some light reading or journaling. Often our subconscious worries come out in our dreams, so journaling is a great way to get those subconscious issues out in the open and unburied. Having the same routine takes diligence, but if you really want to sleep peacefully, you’ll make it work.

 3)   I avoid doing anything that might stress me out before bed.

This includes but is not limited to: checking my e-mail, doing homework, and watching TV. Even though I love it, I’ve found that TV can contribute to my lack of mental relaxation before bed.

 4)    I pray/meditate before going to sleep

If you are part of a specific religious belief, prayer can be a great way to calm your mind and body before bed. If you aren’t religious (or even if you are), meditation is a great alternative to prayer. Try to focus your mind on one thing that is peaceful, so you can fall asleep thinking of something that makes you happy.

What are some of your struggles with nightmares? Are there any special things you do to avoid them? Share your thoughts!

Ashley Dunston graduated from Vanguard University with a degree in English. She spent the past year making coffee drinks in Newport Beach, but she has recently moved to Colorado and hopes to pursue an MFA in creative writing. She enjoys Russian literature, NPR, shopping at thrift stores, and watching Lifetime movies. Surprisingly enough, she is actually not single and does not own any cats.  Email:


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