What Causes Nightmares in Adults?

Do you have nightmares as an adult?

Have you often wondered what causes nightmares in adults? If you happen to have nightmares, you know what usually happens…

Most often, you wake up in the middle of the night screaming. Your heart is racing and your ears are pounding. You’re panting, gasping, and terrified. You’re in extreme fear!

Are you an adult who suffers from frequent nightmares?

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You’re terrified because everything appeared so real. You may even sometimes find yourself wheezing as you pant, breaking out in a cold sweat.

Then oops, the realization suddenly hits you!

It takes you a couple of tense seconds to realize that all the terrifying vividness was just a dream, another really scary dream. This situation is probably a regular occurrence for you, maybe not.

If you had nightmares early in life while growing up, you had probably hoped that you’d grow out of that stage of your life. However, you find that you still suffer from them as an adult, too.

I want you to understand that you’re not alone.

What is a nightmare?

What causes nightmares in adults?
A nightmare forces you to wake up from sleep

A nightmare is a very disturbing dream that forces you to wake up from sleep with feelings of fright and anxiety. They’re vividly realistic disturbing dreams that wake you up from a deep sleep and can be really scary.

Most often, nightmares occur during rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, when most dreaming takes place. REM sleep usually starts from about 90 minutes after you fall asleep.

During REM sleep, your heart rate and breathing usually quicken, and your brain becomes very active. This is the phase where intense dreams occur.

Because periods of REM sleep become progressively longer as the night progresses, you may find that you experience nightmares most often in the early morning hours.

Are nightmares uniformly experienced?

When it comes to nightmares, everyone is different in the types of nightmares they have. However, some common nightmares in adults usually involve the dreamer running in a dream, and not being able to run fast enough to escape impending danger.

The dream may also be about the dreamer falling from a great height.

If you’ve been through severe stress or traumatic events such as a car accident, an attack, or a burglary, you may have recurrent nightmares about those experiences.

Many veterans who were in war fronts mostly have recurrent nightmares about their experiences at battlefronts. The nightmares are often a subconscious way of your “reliving” the traumatic event.

Because of the vivid imagery of some nightmares, they may have a bigger impact on your mind after waking. Sometimes the nightmare you had at night may even stay with you throughout the day.

You may be able to transform nightmares into lucid dreams. This takes some practice, but it is quite rewarding. If you have recurrent nightmares that are affecting your health and well-being, consider learning the skills of lucid dreaming.

Lucid dream therapy helps eliminate anxiety, depression, and phobias. Learn more about how to acquire the skills for Lucid Dream Therapy here.

Nightmares in children

What causes nightmares in adults?
Most nightmares in children tend to decrease after age ten

Nightmares in children commonly occur between ages 3-7 years. About 50% of young children have severe nightmares that cause them to wake up their parents at night. The nightmares tend to peak by age ten and usually decrease thereafter.

However, some children do continue to have nightmares as teens and adults. For them, this may even become a lifelong problem.

Do adults have nightmares?


Although nightmares are more common among children, an estimated 50-85% of adults have nightmares also. And about 2-8% of the adult population get them a lot.

Women tend to report nightmares more often than men, but they’re also more open to discussing their dreams. Nightmares tend to become less frequent and intense as you age.

Do you have nightmares that cause you significant distress or ruin the quality of your sleep? If you do, it is important that you find out what causes your nightmares.

These frightening, too-realistic dreams may often leave you feeling so rattled that it’s hard to go back to sleep after each nightmare. In severe cases, nightmares can cause sleep deprivation.

What causes nightmares in adults?
Are you unable to go back to sleep after a nightmare?

Sleep deprivation has been linked to depression, obesity, and heart disease. By knowing what causes your nightmares, you’ll be able to make the necessary changes to reduce their occurrences and work toward more restful sleep.

Nightmare disorders

What causes nightmares in adults? Nightmares can happen to anyone, but nightmare disorder is not common.

A nightmare disorder occurs in about 2-8% of people, This is the inability of a person to get sufficient sleep because of sleep problems resulting from disturbing dreams.

If you want to know if you have nightmare disorder, answer the following questions:

  • Do you often wake up from sleep because of disturbing dreams?
  • If you do, does your dream occur during the later stage of your sleep period, such as near the morning?
  • When you’re awakened by a dream, are you usually alert and able to think clearly as soon as you wake up?
  • Do you have difficulty falling back asleep after being awoken by the dream?
  • Are you able to clearly recall the details of these dreams?
  • Do your dreams cause emotions of fear, anger, or sadness?

If you answered yes to the questions above, you should consult your doctor who will hopefully refer you to a board-certified sleep specialist. A sleep specialist will be able to tell you if you have a nightmare disorder. They should also be able to rule out the possibility of other underlying causes.

It will also help if you start keeping a sleep diary and use this to document your sleep patterns. The diary will help your healthcare provider determine what is causing your problem and your course of treatment.

If your sleep is severly disturbed by dreams, your healthcare provider may direct you to get an in-lab sleep study.

Night terrors

Night terrors will often cause you to wake up from slow-wave sleep, disoriented. When this happens, you’ll be intensely fearful, and your heart will be racing.

When you have night terrors, you may wake up screaming, kicking and thrashing. You may also bolt out of bed.

It’s usually difficult to remember what happened during the dream, although you may be able to recall just brief segments of a horrible dream. Unlike nightmares, night terrors tend to occur in the first third of the night not early in the morning as in nightmares.

Are nightmares bad for you?

What causes nightmares in adults?
Nightmares can be a symptom of untreated sleep apnea or PTSD

If you’re an anxious or depressed person, you are likely to be more distressed because of nightmares, if you do have them. If you have too many nightmares, you should consult a doctor.

Your nightmares may be a symptom of untreated sleep apnea or PTSD. Therefore, you will require medical treatment to treat the underlying reason for your nightmares.

Getting the right treatment will help reduce or stop your nightmares. By getting the necessary treatment you need, you’ll be able to get more restful sleep.

What causes nightmares in adults?

People often wonder what causes nightmares in adults. If you had nightmares growing up, you probably hoped to grow out of that stage as you reached adulthood. However, you find that you still suffer from nightmares as an adult.  

Nightmares in adults can happen to anyone. They can occur randomly or spontaneously for various reasons.

Sometimes, a nightmare is a subconscious manifestation of fears that need to be addressed and dealt with. It may be showing you the things that trouble you from deep within.

There are a variety of factors and underlying disorders that could be the reasons why you have nightmares as an adult, including:

Eating before bedtime

A pre-bedtime or late-night snack can trigger nightmares. Such late-night snacks can increase your metabolism, signaling your brain to be more active, leading to nightmares.

If you notice that you have more nightmares after having a late-night snack, you shouldn’t snack after dinner. You should avoid heavy meals right before bedtime.


Post-traumatic stress disorder and anxiety can both lead to nightmares. If you think you’re extremely stressed, talk to your doctor.

Discuss coping mechanisms with your doctor and how to use the mechanisms to deal with your stress. You may have to include lifestyle changes, medications, and psychological counseling.

Psychological triggers

A number of psychological triggers can cause nightmares in adults. These triggers include anxiety and depression.

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) has also been associated with people experiencing chronic, recurrent nightmares.

Lack of sleep (sleep deprivation)

Lack of sleep can be the reason why you have nightmares

Lack of sleep or sleep deprivation can contribute to nightmares, and having nightmares can cause a lack of sleep. This is therefore a vicious cycle.

If your nightmares increase when you’ve been skimping on sleep, your primary goal should be to ensure that you get good sleep every day. Try practices such as winding down before bed with a relaxing activity or a relaxing bath. You should also try keeping your bedroom cool before retiring.


Some prescription medications such as antidepressants and narcotics have been associated with nightmares. These medications are known to contribute to the frequency of nightmares. They act on chemicals in the brain, causing nightmares.

Other medications also linked to nightmares in adults include some medications that are prescribed for hypertension and Parkinson’s disease.

If you think that one of the prescription medications you’re taking could be causing your nightmares, talk to your doctor or healthcare provider. A different medication or a lifestyle change may be the solution to your problem.

If you have no options beyond that particular medication that is causing your nightmares, then you’ll have to weigh your pros and cons with your doctor.

If the medication is absolutely necessary for a serious medical condition for which you’re being treated, then you’re probably better off putting up with the nightmares than risking your health or your life. Again, discuss your options with your doctor.

Withdrawal from some medications and substances may also trigger nightmares. This includes withdrawal from alcohol and tranquilizers.

If you notice that there’s a difference in the frequencies of your nightmares after a change in your medication, you should talk with your doctor.

Illicit drugs and substance abuse

Illicit drugs can cause nightmares
Most illicit drugs can alter brain function and cause nightmares

Most illicit drugs are dangerous and have substances in them that can alter your brain function. When this occurs, you will have hallucinations, delirium, fantasies, or nightmares.

Sleep disorders

Some sleep disorders can cause nightmares. They include sleep apnea and restless leg syndrome. If you’re having recurrent nightmares and you have one of these sleep disorders, you should talk to your doctor.

Discuss treatment options. Treatment for a sleep disorder should help improve the quality of your sleep and hopefully eliminate your nightmares.

Mental illnesses

People who suffer from mental illnesses are prone to behavioral and attitude transformations. Their mental illness severely affects their normal, everyday life. This includes their state of sleep during which they commonly experience nightmares.

Childhood and family

Having regular nightmares have been associated with people who have:

  • a history of past neglect and trauma from childhood
  • alcoholism and severe abuse
  • drug problems and
  • psychiatric problems.


Some people have nightmares that have been associated with their suspicions and paranoia about intimate relationships and how people see them.

Post-traumatic stress

Nightmares frequently occur as a result of traumatic experiences in your life. Such events may include surgery, accidents, assault, rape, death, and war.

PTSD causes nightmares
PTSD is known to cause severe nightmares

Effects of nightmares in adults

Now that you know what causes nightmares in adults, what are the consequences and effects of nightmares?  

  • Recurrent nightmares can have a significant effect on your health and well-being. Among those who experience nightmares, if you also suffer from anxiety and depression, you’re more likely to suffer more psychological ill effects.
  • Nightmares have been associated with some suicides.
  • Sleep deprivation which can be caused by nightmares has been associated with certain medical issues such as depression, obesity, and heart disease.
  • Your overall physical and mental health can be impacted if you’re an adult and your nightmares are caused by untreated sleep apnea or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).  

Treatment for nightmares in adults

Treatment for your nightmares depends on the cause of the nightmares. The following measures have been known to help keep nightmares at bay:

  • Keep a regular wake-sleep schedule every day. You may be able to reduce the frequency of your nightmares.
  • Engage in regular exercise can help alleviate nightmare–related stress and anxiety. Yoga and meditation are helpful options you may try.
  • Do not associate your bedroom with stressful activities. Reserve your bedroom as a tranquil and relaxing place for sleep and sex.
  • Be cautious when using caffeine, nicotine, and alcohol. They can remain in your system for more than 12 hours and disrupt your sleep patterns.
  • If your nightmares are caused by medical conditions such as sleep apnea or restless legs syndrome, treating those health conditions is the first step.
  • If your nightmares are side effects caused by prescribed medication that you’re taking, your doctor or healthcare provider may be able to prescribe a different medication. This should eliminate the unwanted side effect of nightmares.
  • Cognitive-behavioral therapy such as imagery rehearsal treatment has been shown to be helpful in treating recurrent nightmares and nightmares caused by post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). This technique is used to help chronic sufferers change their nightmares by rehearsing how they would like their dreams to transpire.
  • Medications can be used in conjunction with therapy to treat PTSD-related nightmares.
  • Counseling can help address some of the underlying causes of your nightmares. This will require a therapist to help you to process your thoughts and feelings. You may need more intensive counseling if your nightmares are caused by a traumatic event.
Counseling can help treat nightmares
Counseling can help address underlying issues which cause nightmares
  • Stress management – managing stress in your life is another therapeutic measure to help you manage your nightmares. This may include relaxation training so that you’re able to reduce the tension or anxiety which keeps you from falling asleep. Also, even when you do have nightmares, you should be able to go back to sleep after a nightmare.

Stress-busting tips for preventing nightmares

  • Use relaxation techniques. It is important that you learn how to get yourself to relax. You should try yoga and meditation for relaxation.
  • Exercise is a good outlet for anxiety. Incorporate some level of physical exercise into your daily schedule.
  • Eliminating caffeine and alcohol can help you get more restful sleep.
  • Lifestyle changes such as limiting screen time before going to bed.
  • Eliminate negative thoughts. Learn to stop negative thoughts from influencing your
Use relaxation to relieve nightmares
Use relaxation and exercises to relieve stress

Your takeaway

Having nightmares is normal, and many people have reported that they’re not disturbed by their nightmares. But sometimes recurrent nightmares may be associated with intense stress or emotional conflict or a medical condition which should be addressed by your doctor or therapist.

20 thoughts on “What Causes Nightmares in Adults?

  1. fantastic post, very informative. I’m wondering why the opposite specialists of this sector don’t realize this. You should continue your writing.
    I am confident, you have a great readers base already!

  2. Thanks for a very comprehensive article on nightmares. I believe our brain processes things that happened in real life while we sleep which is important. So, I agree that nightmares are normal and not necessarily bad.

  3. Nightmares can be really scary, I’ve had a few since Covid. I hope your daughter’s nightmares are easing out.

  4. You’re lucky not to have adult nightmares, and there may be some correlation with your lucid dreams.

  5. It’s weird that eating late at night can cause nightmares, isn’t it? Thanks so much, for your valuable feedback.

  6. Never knew that eating late at night could be a cause of nightmares, neat fact! I wonder if nightmares are ever “random”, there have been times when they’re about events that I would never even have thought about (or perhaps so deep in my subconsciousness that I’m not even aware).

  7. very informative post! but you forgot the number 1 cause for nightmares in adults – their children LOL

  8. I had a doozy of a nightmare last night and I couldn’t get back to sleep -thanks for the read.

  9. I didn’t even think about it until reading this article, but I don’t remember having any nightmares since I was a kid. I have had quite a few lucid dreams in my adult life though, so I wonder if there’s some correlation there.

  10. Nightmares can certainly be scary events, especially in children. The article describes the types, causes, common triggers, and treatments. Our daughter has been on anti-depressants and had occasional nightmares.

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