Dreams that Go Bump in the Night
Lots of people love to pop in scary flicks and shriek their way through haunted houses—but you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who loves nightmares. Waking up startled and afraid is just not fun. Often nightmares can mimic reality, but some are so awful and out-of-this-world that it’s hard to believe you could even dream them up! Fear not, we have the scoop on why we get spooked during sleep and how to decrease nightmares.

What causes nightmares?

When are they most likely to occur?

As you may know, there are five different stages of sleep, divided into REM (rapid eye movement) and non-REM types. The fifth stage of sleep, REM, is when most dreams and nightmares occur—and this is typically during the middle of the night or early morning. (Ever popped up with a gasp in the middle of the night?) This doesn’t mean nightmares are isolated to REM stages—they can also occur during non-REM stages, especially if the nightmare is the result of a trauma.

What causes nightmares?

Children typically start having nightmares between the ages of 3 and 6, but some kids can have them as toddlers. Often their nightmares are based on their developmental stage—little ones may dream they’re lost or separated from their parents and older kids can get spooked in the middle of the night due to increased knowledge and understanding of potential dangers in the world, over a scary movie or story they saw or heard or from day-to-day stresses or anxieties.

The exact causes of nightmares aren’t known—and they can vary from person to person. But we do know that, just like kids, adults often have nightmares that are loosely based in reality, especially after a stressful or traumatic event or from ongoing stress. You might also see a rise in bad dreams due to an illness or a fever. Eating close to bedtime also ups the likelihood of nightmares because late-night munching boosts metabolism and brain activity. And certain medications like antidepressants, narcotics, barbiturates, beta blockers and drugs for treating Parkinson’s disease have also been shown to increase unnerving dreams.

How can I avoid scary dreams?

It’s unlikely that you’ll be able to get rid of nightmares entirely—especially if you’re prone to them, but there are some tricks to reducing their frequency.

  • Maintain a regular sleep schedule
  • Avoid scary or negative images and stories in the hour before bed
  • Steer clear of stressful conversations or arguments at night
  • Don’t give in to hunger cravings after 7 p.m.
  • Decrease or eliminate use of alcohol and caffeine
  • Try relaxation techniques before bed like meditation, yoga, deep breathing or a warm bath