Causes of Nightmares and Night Terrors

nightmaresWhereas the causes of bad dreams in children are relatively simple to discover, nightmares in adults may be triggered by a variety of physical and mental events.

  • At the most basic level, a major life event such as death, divorce or a house move, a traumatic event, increased stress at home or work and money worries can cause nightmares.
  • More deep seated psychological or psychiatric disorders, for example depression, schizophrenia or post-traumatic stress disorder can commonly cause people to experience chronic, recurrent nightmares.
  • A symptom or side effect of another sleep disorder or underlying health problem; nightmares can be a feature of diseases that affect the functioning of the brain such as narcolepsy, REM sleep behaviour disorder, sleep apnoea and restless legs syndrome, and rarely Parkinson’s disease.
  • Drugs; a number of medications are known to stimulate frequent nightmare activity. Many drugs can increase the frequency and intensity of dreams including dopaminergic drugs, beta blockers and antidepressants. Other drugs that act on neurotransmitters, such as antidepressants and narcotics, are often associated with nightmares. Non-psychological medication, including some blood pressure medications, and some over-the-counter sleep aids and medicines, as well as illegal ‘recreational’ drugs, can also cause nightmares in adults.
  • Withdrawal from medications and substances such as alcohol and tranquilisers can prompt nightmares. If nightmares become more frequent after a change in medication, talk to your doctor.
  • Too much alcohol.
  • Some people have nightmares after a late-night spicy or heavy meal, which can increase the metabolism and signal the brain to be more active.
  • Sleep deprivation may contribute to adult nightmares, which themselves often cause additional sleep loss. Some believe that this cycle could be a chronic nightmare disorder, a distinct sleep disorder in its own right. This may run in families.
  • Illness with a fever.


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