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Nightmare Disorders: What Causes Them?

Approximately 50% to 85% of adults in the U.S. experience nightmares occasionally, according to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine. Nightmare disorders can be incredibly distressing, particularly for those who have endured trauma or stress. Not only do they impact quality of life for many individuals but they may lead to other issues like depression, anxiety or substance abuse as well.

There are several causes and treatment for nightmare disorders, which we will discuss below:


Genetic Contributions to Nightmares - There are links between nightmare frequency and various genetic factors. Researchers still do not understand why some people experience frequent nightmares and others do not. There is some evidence that a person's family history may play a role in developing nightmares and their frequency.

Medications and Other Symptoms - Certain medications, such as antihistamines or antidepressants, may cause nightmares. Your doctor can adjust the dosage or provide alternative drugs that don't cause nightmares. Some drugs may also cause other effects like irritability or difficulty paying attention.

Sex Disparities in Nightmare Prevalence - Women tend to report more nightmares than men due to various reasons, including sex biases, biological differences in how our bodies process emotions, and the presence of certain mental health disorders such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) among women.


Stress and Anxiety Treatment - If you are dealing with frequent nightmares due to stress or anxiety, your doctor may suggest stress reduction techniques or therapy with a mental health professional. Your doctor may also suggest medication if the nightmares appear to be linked to an underlying mental health condition like PTSD or depression.

Psychological Therapy - For people suffering from chronic or recurring nightmares that are impairing their quality of life, talk therapy can often be the most successful form of treatment. A therapist can assist in recognizing what triggers your nightmares, teaching you new ways to cope with them, and giving you tools for dealing with them effectively.

Hypnosis - A hypnotherapist can assist you in reaching a relaxed, trance-like state by using specific relaxation techniques. These may include deep breathing, muscle relaxation and guided imagery or chanting to quiet your mind.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy - A therapist can teach you new ways to cope with your fears and anxieties. Common treatments involve exposure and desensitization to specific fears, as well as hypnosis for relaxation.

Imagery Rehearsal Therapy - This therapy can be particularly helpful for those suffering from nightmares associated with PTSD. In this type of therapy, you reenact the ending of your nightmare while awake, so that it no longer causes fear in you.

If you are struggling with nightmares, speak to your doctor about getting assistance. If your doctor suspects the nightmares are due to an underlying sleep disorder such as sleep apnea or restless legs syndrome, they may suggest taking a nocturnal polysomnogram, or polysomnography. This involves placing sensors on your body which record and monitor brain waves, oxygen level in blood, heart rate and breathing, eye and leg movements during sleep. If you would like more information about sleep apnea diagnosis and treatment, talk to your doctor or contact us.



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