Causes of Dreams and Nightmares

Paper Info
Page count 4
Word count 1128
Read time 5 min
Topic Health
Type Research Paper
Language 🇺🇸 US


A nightmare is a dream with terrifying content that threatens one’s life, safety, or dignity, and the content of the dream is vivid even after awakening. In the past, nightmares are believed to have helped predict and warn of potential dangers and attacks from wildlife and other tribes. However, Barrett points out that the danger-avoidance ability of nightmares acquired in this evolution process has become less beneficial for human beings in society today (Barrett, 2020). That is why it is crucial to identify their causes to develop intervention measures. It is the purpose of the paper to explore the history of nightmares and identify their probable causes.

History of Dream and Nightmare Research

Dream research has a history of about 120 years and dates back to Freud’s time. The first generation of researchers found that dreams are valuable as they reflect an individual’s worldview (Barone, 2020). However, since it was an era when the mechanism of dreams and sleep was not yet understood, it was biased toward mysticism and deep psychology to interpret dreams as symbols. , the second generation of dream research started with the discovery of Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep in 1953 (Barone, 2020). It was established that during REM sleep, the whole body’s muscles are relaxed and loose, but only the eyes are moving quickly. It was also found that the activity level of the brain was close to active when awake. While organizing the memory information, it put together a bizarre dream with a clear story. The third generation of dream research investigated brain activity when dreaming. If the parietal lobe is damaged, the dream itself disappears. If the frontal limbic system is damaged, an overly explicit dream is likely to occur (Kavoor & Mitra, 2020). Alternatively, if the temporal limbic system is damaged, nightmares are likely to occur. It is also known that dreams are generally not memorable and disperse with awakening because the secretion of substances in the brain that fix the memory is small during REM sleep (Barone, 2020). In this sense, an overly vivid nightmare can be recalled in detail and is sometimes considered a unique dream.

Factors that Trigger Dreams and Nightmares

Nightmares are dreams that are likely to occur during the preparatory stage of awakening of the brain. Since the brain in this state integrates memory and memory, it often memorizes nightmare images. Traditionally, people used to have nightmares as a danger-avoiding mechanism. Since the nature of dangers they used to experience, such as dangers from wild animals and attacks from hostile tribes, are no longer prevalent, the current causes of dreams and nightmares have changed. The modern triggers include stress or anxiety, trauma, medications, and substance abuse.


Stressful experiences or events are one of the significant triggers of nightmares. Nightmares are seen when a person experiences a potentially stressful event in the real world (Nielsen, 2017). The triggers range from daily stress such as work deadlines to significant life events such as going on to school, getting a job, transferring, getting married, and the expectation of failure (Nielsen, 2017). For adults, unemployment, divorce, health anxiety, bereavement experience, etc., play a vital role in the nightmare occurrence. For children, exam, match, contest failure anxiety, broken heart, discord with parents, bullying experience, etc., are likely to be typical trigger stimuli for nightmares (Nielsen, 2017). The ability to handle stressful experiences has been shown to reduce the incidence of nightmares. Experienced adults try to solve problems by comparing them with past information stored in their brains, but sometimes they run into problems that exceed their capacity, which becomes a nightmare. Consequently, it is crucial to help people experiencing stressful situations settle and solve their problems psychologically.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

Some theories associate nightmares with post-traumatic stress disorder. The dreams that patients with PTSD have are different from regular nightmares, and they often have content that accurately reproduces their traumatic events (Short et al., 2018). These symptoms are believed to be due to the overactivity of more profound brain areas involved in identifying potential threats and feeling fear (Short et al., 2018). Post-traumatic stress disorder results in the generation of runaway thoughts, severe anxiety, nightmares, and flashbacks. Many traumatic events that promote PTSD development include being exposed to combat, early childhood abuse, sexual violence, physical assault, and experiencing threats, especially using lethal weapons (Short et al., 2018). Other events that foster the development of PTSD include experiencing terrorist attacks, life-threatening medical diagnoses, kidnapping, torture, plane crash, robbery, and natural disasters like an earthquakes. Nightmares help erase traumatic memory or conversely fix traumatic memory, and this is why people who have PTSD tend to experience numerous nightmares in their life (Short et al., 2018). Consequently, doctors and psychiatrists serving patients who have PTSD should include measures to prevent their checklists’ nightmares.

Drugs and Medications

Nightmares can also be triggered by drugs, which is valuable information when considering the mechanism of occurrence. Typical examples are antihypertensive drugs (β blockers), Parkinson’s disease drugs (L-dopa), dementia drugs (acetylcholinesterase inhibitors), anti-depressants, and antihistamines (Bollu et al., 2018). These drugs have the common feature of affecting neurotransmitters’ actions, such as dopamine, acetylcholine, and histamine, involved in sleep regulation. The anti-depressant significantly affects the neurotransmitter serotonin used in improving mood (Bollu et al., 2018). High blood pressure medications affect the blood pressure and hence interfere with the brain’s response to norepinephrine. Consequently, those patients using the drugs identified above should only use them under the doctor’s prescription to avoid predisposing themselves to nightmares.

Substance Abuse

Research also shows that there is a significant association between nightmares and drug abuse. The people who abuse the drugs have high tendencies to experience nightmares (Kavoor, & Mitra, 2020). The use of illicit drugs triggers nightmares experiences but only when the drug leaves the victim’s body. Individuals who are drug dependent experience unpleasant nightmares, especially during the withdrawal process that deprives them of sleep. During the withdrawal process, the brain experiences neurological imbalances that trigger the development of nightmares (Kavoor, & Mitra, 2020). The drugs responsible for developing nightmares during withdrawal include methamphetamine and stimulants like cocaine, marijuana, and alcohol. The use of these drugs can also elevate the episodes of nightmares. Therefore, people who tend to abuse drugs should be aware that they are predisposing themselves to nightmares and bad dreams.


The findings demonstrate that nightmares are disturbing dreams that can be attributed to stress, post-traumatic stress disorder, medications, and substance abuse. When the cause of a nightmare, such as a mental illness or a drug, is clear, it is essential to deal with it. Autogenic training is practical for repeated nightmares whose cause is unclear. Autogenic training is a type of self-hypnosis for mental and physical relaxation. Several medications reduce REM sleep and relieve anxiety.


Barone, D. A. (2020). Dream enactment behavior—a real nightmare: a review of post-traumatic stress disorder, REM sleep behavior disorder, and trauma-associated sleep disorder. Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine, 16(11), 1943-1948. Web.

Barrett, D. (2020). When the answer comes in a Ddeam. American Scientist, 108(4), 200-203.

Bollu, P. C., Goyal, M. K., Thakkar, M. M., & Sahota, P. (2018). Sleep medicine: Parasomnias. Missouri Medicine, 115(2), 169. Web.

Kavoor, A. R., & Mitra, S. (2020). Nightmares with mirtazapine-A case report. Indian Journal of Psychiatry, 62(6), 734. Web.

Nielsen, T. (2017). The stress acceleration hypothesis of nightmares. Frontiers in Neurology, 8(7), 201-221. Web.

Short, N. A., Allan, N. P., Stentz, L., Portero, A. K., & Schmidt, N. B. (2018). Predictors of insomnia symptoms and nightmares among individuals with post‐traumatic stress disorder: An ecological momentary assessment study. Journal of Sleep Research, 27(1), 64-72. Web.

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EssaysInCollege. (2022, July 27). Causes of Dreams and Nightmares. Retrieved from


EssaysInCollege. (2022, July 27). Causes of Dreams and Nightmares.

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"Causes of Dreams and Nightmares." EssaysInCollege, 27 July 2022,


EssaysInCollege. (2022) 'Causes of Dreams and Nightmares'. 27 July.


EssaysInCollege. 2022. "Causes of Dreams and Nightmares." July 27, 2022.

1. EssaysInCollege. "Causes of Dreams and Nightmares." July 27, 2022.


EssaysInCollege. "Causes of Dreams and Nightmares." July 27, 2022.