The Factors That Influence Dream Content and How to Stop Nightmares? Update 07/2024

Experiencing tooth loss? Are you all alone in the wilderness? Being pursued yet unable to scream? Most of us may recall at least one strong, visceral terror and lingering discomfort from a dream like this.

There is no end to the mind’s reel of dread, and some of these dreams can be downright frightening. Bad dreams can make it difficult to get back to sleep and contribute to nighttime anxiety for both children and adults, regardless of their age.

Mysterious things might happen in dreams and nightmares. To investigate this area of neuroscience and psychology can be difficult because each of us encounters a distinct dream world that is intrinsically subjective and difficult to document.

Little is known for certain about why we dream, what causes certain dreams, or how it all works, despite a few possibilities. Theoretically, nightmares can be reduced or eliminated, but there are some interesting hypotheses and recent research that may provide light on this. Dreams can be influenced by a variety of factors, and it is important to know what these influences are and how to deal with them.

What Is a Nightmare?

Having a nightmare is defined as having dreams that cause you to feel frightened or frightened. When a nightmare causes the sleeper to awaken with strong emotions after waking, it is easy to tell the difference between it and a bad dream. The details of a nightmare are often vividly recalled by those who awaken during it.
Lucid Dreams: What They Are and How to Experience Them – Cleveland Clinic

At certain times of the night, your brain is working overtime as you sleep. Even if you’re sleeping, your mind is still absorbing energy at the same rate or even more than when you’re up. Your muscles are paralyzed, but your eyes are moving at a quick pace. At least temporarily paralyzing your body during REM sleep is a beneficial thing, since this allows the motor cortex to continue firing commands as you move around in your dream world.

Typically, nightmares occur in the later stages of sleep, during the rapid eye movement (REM) periods. We don’t know much about why we dream, but theories range from controlling our subconscious thoughts to sorting out our memories and acquired knowledge to completely random chemical signals. There isn’t much research on why dreams can sometimes evolve into nightmares, although some daytime circumstances are thought to play a significant impact in this phenomenon.

Despite its common association with childhood, nightmares and terrible dreams affect both children and adults.

An estimated 10 to 50 percent of children aged three to six have disturbing dreams, while an estimated 80 percent of children aged seven to nine have these kinds of nightmares on occasion.

Adults can and do have nightmares, too, despite the fact that they are more common in children and adolescents. 85-89% of adults say they have at least one nightmare a month, and 2-6 percent say they have a weekly nightmare, according to a study of the literature. In comparison to younger adults, adults over the age of 65 had a 20-50 percent lower incidence of nightmares.

Behind the Scenes: The Factors That Influence Dream Content

What did you see or hear in your most recent nightmare? Despite the fact that everyone of our lives and experiences are unique, if you asked a group of individuals this question, you’d probably find a few common threads. A lot of our dreams are based on the same things, according to studies.

According to a study conducted by the University of Montreal in 2014, 253 nightmares and 431 terrible dreams were studied. They discovered that physical aggressiveness, along with death, illness, and threats, was the most common theme in nightmares. Men’s nightmares were more likely to focus on natural disasters and war, whilst women’s were more likely to focus on interpersonal strife. Many of my dreams were characterized by feelings of melancholy, bewilderment, terror, or disgust.

German researchers revealed that the five most prevalent nightmare themes were falling, being chased, being immobilized and the loss of a family member or a close friend.

Things like our personal relationships, daytime activities, medications, and traumatic events all have crucial connections. There is no definitive proof or consensus as to what causes nightmares or why we experience them.

Your Experiences

Most people’s dreams involve both literal and abstract parts of their waking lives. Studying, taking a test, dealing with an issue, going to work, spending time with family, or performing a routine task during the day may all appear in your dreams. It’s possible to have dreams that include things such as tension, dread and anxiety as well as other unpleasant components of our daily lives.

In dreams, episodic events and experiences are most common after one or two days or five or seven days. Our personal experiences and long-term recollections of the self are also prevalent themes in dreams, as are our past autobiographical experiences. According to studies, most people have selective and fragmentary memories of these events.

Anxiety and Stress

Things like moving, changing jobs at school or work, or failing at a task can all cause stress and anxiety, as can more serious issues like losing a loved one, trauma or anxiety disorders. Sleep deprivation is often accompanied by feelings of tension and anxiety, and these emotions can also set off a nightmare.

One recurrent motif you may have seen in your own nightmares is anxiety about one’s own performance. In one study, for example, over 15% of German athletes reported having disturbing nightmares prior to a large event, with the majority of these dreams involving failure in athletics. Even after they’ve graduated from school, many students still have unpleasant dreams about upcoming examinations or finals, which can last for months or even years.


Bad nightmares are frequently attributed to watching scary, fascinating, or suspenseful television or listening to frightening news reports. Despite the fact that it is difficult to analyze, many of us can recall instances in which media-based imagery and scenarios appeared in our dreams. Some people’s tension and anxiety are exacerbated by scary media (setting the stage for distressing dreams).

Most college students can recall a terrifying television episode or other media encounter from when they were children or adolescents, according to an older survey, and more than half of those students claimed it had altered their sleep or eating patterns. More surprising is the fact that around a quarter of the kids still reported feeling some residual anxiousness. These triggers included blood, injuries, unsettling noises, and distorted visuals that elicited a fear response.
How to Avoid Nightmares: A Checklist for Sweet Dreams | Sleep Cycle


In a recent study, people with severe depression and a low self-image were more likely to suffer from nightmares. There is a high correlation between depression and dreams, with 28 percent of sufferers reporting regular nightmares compared to the sample’s 4 percent.


According to a study, persons with personality qualities such as distrust and emotional estrangement were more likely to suffer from persistent nightmares than those with more positive personality traits. Ernest Hartmann, a long-time dream researcher, believes that those with a more open personality and greater creativity are more likely to suffer from nightmares.

A political ideology is yet another intriguing tie-in. According to a survey of college students, conservatives had more nightmares and dream content that was more frightening than liberals, although liberals had more dreams overall.


Several studies have shown that sleep quality and dream content can be affected by temperature and comfort, as well as the environment. People who sleep in a room that is either too hot or too cold are more likely to wake up during the night and remember more of their dreams because they are less able to sleep.

To minimize tossing and turning and other disruptions to your nightly sleep cycle, make sure you’re resting on a supportive mattress.

Smell could also be a factor. Sleepers were exposed to the smells of rotten eggs or roses after entering REM sleep in a study in Germany. Those who were awakened by the scent of roses had more positive dream content, whereas those who were awakened by the scent of rotten eggs had more negative dream content.

Traumatic Experiences

Posttraumatic stress disorder is defined by frequent or recurring nightmares, which have been related to traumatic situations such as interpersonal abuse and surviving natural catastrophes.

Trauma-related stress disorder (PTSD) is associated with significantly higher rates of nightmares, with estimates ranging from 52 percent to as high as 96 percent, compared to only 3 percent for the general population. PTSD experts at the National Center for PTSD believe trauma-induced nightmares often feature recurring themes and motifs.


The frequency of nightmares may be affected by drugs that affect neurotransmitters. Antidepressants and barbiturates, for example, can interfere with REM sleep. Consult your doctor if you begin having nightmares after making a prescription modification.

Eating Before Bed

Indigestion can result from eating too close to bedtime, and it can also affect your metabolism and your dreams. Some research suggests that eating hot food right before going to bed can cause sleep disturbances, while other research suggests that junk food may be the cause of nightmares.

Other Influential Factors

  • People who suffer from insomnia and exhaustion are more likely to suffer from frequent nightmares, according to a study in Finland.
  • Sleep disorders: Nightmares are more common in people with sleep apnea and other sleep disorders, such as restless leg syndrome (RLS).
  • Migraine headaches may be connected to more frequent nightmares and dreams.
  • 39 percent of burn victims reported experiencing pain in their dreams, which was linked to more nightmares and greater daytime pain, according to a study.

Minimizing Nightmares and Brushing Off Bad Dreams

As far as controlling nightmares are concerned, there are just a few schools of thought to choose from. Dreams aren’t a big deal for most people, but if they wake you up frequently or you have a hard time sleeping thereafter, there are a few methods you may try to prevent or lessen their impact.

Establish a sleep routine

Having a nighttime routine will help you sleep better and avoid having nightmares, as well.

Martin claims that nightmares occur during the phase of rapid eye movement sleep when our muscles are relaxed and we dream. Waking up in the middle of a REM sleep cycle allows us to remember our dreams, which in turn causes us distress.
The most effective technique to cure adult nightmares is to help people sleep better so they wake up less frequently, according to Martin.
Well-rested people have a regular sleep schedule.
Establish a regular sleep and waking schedule by working out, sleeping in a cool, dark room, avoiding caffeinated beverages after 3 p.m., and indulging in soothing hobbies.

Cut back on alcohol

Martin claims that drinking alcohol can cause you to wake up frequently throughout the night, which may assist you remember your dreams.

It’s not the proper solution for many individuals to wind down at the end of the day with booze, she continued. In place of caffeine, consider herbal teas and other sleep-inducing liquids. Talk to your partner or read a book instead if drinking is all you do to unwind.
According to Martin, a single drink up to three hours before night is fine. Just keep an eye on whether or not it makes you sleepy after dinner and keeps you up at night, and cut it out if you notice this pattern.

Don’t eat before bed

According to the National Sleep Foundation, snacking can increase metabolism, which in turn leads your brain to be more active and may result in nightmares.
A modest snack before bedtime may help some individuals sleep better but it’s best to eat less than three hours before bedtime. Avoid heavy meals before bedtime if you get nightmares following a heavy meal.

Review your medications

Nightmares can be triggered by medicine that disrupts REM sleep.
Patients should consult with their doctors about their pharmaceutical regimen, Martin said, because they may have nightmares that began or worsened as a result of a change in medicine.
While melatonin is a popular sleep aid, it has the potential to increase or decrease the frequency of nightmares by interfering with our circadian cycle, which controls REM sleep. If you want to use melatonin to help you sleep better, Martin recommends consulting with a sleep specialist to make sure you’re taking it at the correct time and not making things worse.

Practice stress-relieving activities

To reduce nightmares, you can practice progressive muscle relaxation, which involves tensing and relaxing muscle regions as you inhale and exhale.
As Tal explained in an email, “Nightmares trigger the sympathetic nervous system, the body’s natural response to imminent danger.”
The parasympathetic nerve system, generally known as the’rest and digest’ system, is built into the human body. Relaxation practices, such as progressive muscle relaxation, can assist activate that system.

Journal your worries

Make a list of all of your concerns so that they don’t resurface in the middle of the night. Tal asserts that journaling might help relieve stress and nightmares.

Don’t watch or read scary content before bed

Martin advised us to “spend some energy connecting with things that are more emotionally neutral or even pleasant” before bedtime because our evening observations can appear throughout sleep.
Even in the midst of the pandemic, our daily routines take on a frightening appearance. “Reading the news and then going to sleep is more likely to cause unsettling and upsetting nightmares than browsing through family vacation photos,” she said.

Rewrite the ending

“When the recurring nightmares are revealing similar themes and patterns,” Tal said, imagery rehearsal therapy is useful.

An important part of this exercise is to write down every detail of the dream, as nightmares can be learnt behaviors for the brain. After that, revise the dream to make it a happy one. Say out loud, “If or when I experience the beginnings of the same horrible dream, I will be able to instead have this much better dream with a wonderful outcome,” just before you go to sleep to set the intention to redream.
Instead of a nightmare, you’ll be more likely to have a rewriting if you practice it in the daytime, says Tal.
How to put your nightmares to rest | Tampa General Hospital

Use a white noise machine

There are some people who find it difficult to get a good night’s sleep because they don’t like it to be absolutely silent, but for those people, “background noise” is a smart tactic, according to Martin.

You can assist your brain adjust by using a fan, white noise machine, or app for several consecutive nights.

Check up on your mental health

Consult a therapist or sleep specialist if nothing seems to help and you’re still getting nightmares.

“Nightmares might be a sign of a larger condition, like PTSD or a mental disorder,” Tal said. Treatment of the nightmares alone may be effective, but treatment of both the symptom and the underlying condition may also be beneficial.
According to Tal, “much progress has been made on psychological treatments for nightmares, sleeplessness, anxiety, and mood disorders. ” Ask for help; psychotherapy works and it’s typically short-term and accessible.

Talk to a Doctor

In the event frequent nightmares are harming your quality of sleep and overall health, you should consider discussing the matter with your doctor, who may be able to offer some medical or mental health remedies.

Frequently Asked Questions

What Do Nightmares Mean?

Many people are interested in learning about the significance of dreams and nightmares. Certain nightmare scenarios may be used as a metaphor for anything going on in our life, according to certain health care providers. A reoccurring nightmare, for example, may be a sign that you have an issue that needs to be addressed. It’s also possible that being hunted by a monster in your dreams could indicate that something in your life is making you feel like you’re running away.

What Are Common Themes in Bad Dreams?

Psychologist Geneviève Robert says that the most common nightmare themes are death, health worries and threats. It’s a fact that men are more likely to fantasize about crisis scenarios such as floods and war. Women’s stories, on the other hand, tend to focus on interpersonal difficulties.

Are Nightmares a Disorder?

Having nasty nightmares from time to time is quite natural, but if they happen frequently, it’s something to be concerned about. Dream apnea is classified a parasomnia by Mayo Clinic experts. A parasomnia is a sleep disorder characterized by strange or unsettling dreams. When a patient is unable to get enough rest because of their nightmares, they have been diagnosed with a condition known as nightmare disorder. This is a situation when you should contact your doctor, who will likely review your symptoms, perform an exam, and recommend an overnight sleep study.


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