Nightmares and bad dreams — what’s the difference?

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How well do you sleep? Do you wake up rested, or do you often go for bedtime rides on the back of a nightmare? Do you know the difference between bad dreams and nightmares? Bad dreams are those that torment you but don’t wake you up. In contrast, nightmares wake you up and often leave you reliving the torture until daybreak. It is quite normal to have nightmares now and then. However, even though it is not yet clear why they happen, scientists have identified things that could increase the chances of having nightmares.

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Stress or anxiety can cause nightmares

If your day-to-day life exposes you to stressful situations that cause anxiety, the chances of nightmares are high. Similarly, school-related worries and stress could cause them in children of all ages. Significant changes in your life could cause nightmares. It could be relocating, losing loved ones or other major traumatic or stressful events.

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Nightmares are often linked to mental health conditions

Studies show that people with conditions like depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia or general anxiety disorder are more likely to experience nightmares. Fortunately, stress-easing therapies or techniques could limit their frequency.

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PTSD and Trauma can cause frequent nightmares

People with Post-traumatic Stress Syndrome tend to have intense and frequent nightmares. The nature of the dreams could be so vivid that they worsen PTSD. Similarly, victims of trauma, such as physical or sexual abuse or witnessing a catastrophic accident in which a loved one died, will be likely victims of nightmares.

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Substance misuse or abuse and withdrawal

People who misuse drugs or alcohol might have more nightmares. However, this is a tricky one because trying to stop and withdrawal could increase the likelihood of having them.

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Medications known to cause nightmares

Drugs and medications that could affect sleep quality and cause horror or torment during sleep include antidepressants, antibiotics and antifungals. In like manner, beta-blockers used to manage abnormal heart rhythm and blood pressure medications can affect your sleep.

The same goes for drugs to help people stop smoking and drugs to treat Parkinson’s disease. People who use stimulants like methylphenidate and amphetamine to treat narcolepsy and ADHD are more susceptible to these nighttime horrors.

Identifying the medicine that causes them can help the doctor prescribe something different or change the dosage or time schedule to take the medicine.

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Snacks or meals just before bed

This one is a no-brainer! We all know that consuming food stimulates metabolism, which, in turn, causes more brain activity. Hence, the increased chances of finding yourself taking a ride on the back of a nightmare.

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Sleep Apnea

Apnea is a condition that causes brief moments of not breathing while asleep. Doctors speculate that this condition increases the likelihood of waking up from tormenting dreams. I believe there are therapies to reduce sleep apnea.

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Lack of sleep

Not getting enough quality sleep is one way to trigger nightmares. Insomnia can be the cause, or changed schedules requiring your body to adapt to different bedtimes.

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Horror movies or scary books

Nightmares after watching horror movies or reading a scary book are not limited to children. Adults can react in similar ways. If this has happened to you, avoid that kind of entertainment too close to bedtime.

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Should you see a doctor?

Nightmares are normal occurrences now and then. However, you might want to see your doctor if they happen more frequently than once per week. It could disrupt your sleep, cause fear to go to sleep, affect your mood and interfere with your daily tasks.

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