What It Means to Have Nightmares As an Adult, According to Experts

A sleep specialist warns having nightmares as an adult can signal a physical health issue.

From the content we consume to real-life events, there’s so much out there that can influence the imaginary world we drift off to during slumber. Unfortunately, nightmares are part of this equation, too.

Nightmares come in all sorts of terrorizing shapes and sizes. You may have dreamt about falling, being naked in public, your teething falling out, or your partner cheating on you — which is a lot more common than you may think.

Certain movies and books can give us nightmares, too. (Whatever you do, don’t read The Book of Cold Cases before going to bed — trust me.) If you’ve ever jolted awake in an all out sweat and panic after watching a particular TV show, then you’ve experienced what Hartford HealthCare refers to as a nightmare spawned by “psychological causes.”

“If you’re watching Law & Order reruns till midnight, it’s not surprising when you have a horrific nightmare — you’ve just been watching something horrific,” Steven Thau, MD, a pulmonologist and sleep specialist with St. Vincent’s Medical Center in Bridgeport, CT, says. “Your brain is not a light switch. It can’t turn on and off. It has to process what happened.”

Makes sense, right? These are usually considered one-off types of nightmares. They’re not frequent – unless, you’re watching Law & Order for multiple hours every night, which in that case that’s on you — and there’s a clear explanation as to why.

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However, nightmares can be attributed to physical causes, too. Hartford HealthCare warns that having nightmares on a regular basis as an adult isn’t normal. It can actually be a sign of an underlying health issue such as a sleep disorder.

“A lot of people have recurrent nightmares about being suffocated or chased, and when we do a sleep study, it turns out they have a sleep disorder like sleep apnea or restless leg syndrome,” Dr. Thau explains.

Woman Scared

The good news is that it’s something that can be treated. In fact, Dr. Thau says once the issue has been pinpointed and a treatment plan is in place “dreams go back to being pleasant.”

Nightmares can also be triggered by things like alcohol, cigarettes, and even blue light.

“Alcohol and smoking directly impair the brain’s ability to sleep and achieve the more natural stages of sleep,” Dr. Thau says. Essentially, anything that may disrupt the REM cycle of sleep could increase your chances of having a nightmare.

Concurrently, excess screen time can mess with your sleep hormones. More specifically, you want to stay away from the blue light radiating from your phone, laptop, or TV screen before falling asleep.

Doctors advise avoiding screens two hours before bed. To make the transition easier, you can always invest in a pair of blue light blocking glasses that’ll help filter out the blue light.

In the meantime, Dr. Thau suggests having a game plan for your next nightmare.

“When you wake up from a nightmare, your heart rate’s going to be elevated, your blood pressure is going to be high,” Dr. Thau says. “Only two things are going to help you fall back asleep: remaining calm and waiting.”

If you’re unable to fall back asleep after a few tosses and turns, focus on your breathing. You can try listening to soothing music or browsing feel-good content like food recipes. Whatever you do, don’t turn on the TV or read the news.

If night terrors are still getting the best of you, reach out to a sleep specialist who can help set you up with a sleep study. Sleep affects us in every which way, and without proper sleep hygiene we’ve got nothing!

Emily Weaver
Emily is a NYC-based freelance entertainment and lifestyle writer — though, she’ll never pass up the opportunity to talk about women’s health and sports (she thrives during the Olympics). Read more
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