What Are The Causes Of Bad Dreams In Adults? (2023)

The feeling is very familiar. You wake up in the middle of the night, heart pounding and unable to escape the images flashing across your mind.

Yeah, welcome to the world of bad dreams. Don’t worry, you’re not alone. Between 2% and 8% of adults are plagued by nightmares. Now, this may seem a low percentage, but let’s put this into some perspective for you.

The adult population of the UK was estimated at 52,403,344 for 2018. Let’s round this up to 52.5 million.

That means that between 1-4 million people are suffering from reoccurring nightmares in the UK alone. That’s more than the entire population of the West Midlands. So yeah, you are not alone.

Nightmares are not fun, at all. But in order to stop yourself having bad dreams, you need to get to the root of the problem behind them. Sorry, it’s a bit more complicated than checking to see that the monster in the closet isn’t actually there.

Ready to put your bad nights behind you? Read on to discover the causes of bad dreams in adults and how you can combat them.

Can adults really have bad dreams?

Yes, anyone is capable of a bad dream.

Even though nightmares are more common amongst children, it can be fairly common amongst adults. In fact, 1 in 2 adults occasionally has bad dreams.

Hell, a few weeks ago I had one myself. It was a pretty horrible one where a scientist had managed to create 4 supersized spiders and put them up for auction in a hotel. And when I say supersized, I mean it. They were eating pidgeons whole in one bite.

What Are The Causes Of Bad Dreams In Adults? (1)

The spiders were in cages that could not contain them. Unsurprisingly, they escaped and multiplied. The next thing you know, these giant spiders were everywhere. There was no escape. And for someone who has a fear of spiders, let me tell you this wasn’t a pleasant dream to have.

And I can only apologise for that imagery if you’re not a fan of them either. Hopefully, you won’t have that dream later on.

Can bad dreams impact your health?


Bad dreams are more than just having an unpleasant night’s sleep. If they wake you up early, they interfere with the amount of sleep that you get. And because you’re not in a comfortable and calm mood afterwards, you can’t get back to sleep easily either.

The following day, you’ll be tired, grumpy, unproductive and less able to concentrate. Depending on the severity of the dream, you also might experience symptoms of shock, a high heart rate and increased levels of stress.

(Video) Seen At 11: Chronic Nightmares Could Mean Serious Health Problems

Over time, this will get worse. Without the correct amount of sleep at night, you’ll be more at risk of:

  • A weak immune system, making you more liable to colds and illnesses;
  • Lower sex drive and struggle conceiving;
  • Poor mental health and increased risk of depression or anxiety;
  • Type 2 diabetes, as a lack of sleep changes the way your body processes glucose;
  • Certain types of cancer, including breast, colorectal and prostate cancer;
  • Heart disease, as a lack of sleep puts extra pressure and strain on your heart.

And that’s just from a lack of sleep. If you’re facing extra stress or anxiety over your dreams, these symptoms may even worsen.

Can nightmares kill you?

What Are The Causes Of Bad Dreams In Adults? (2)

No. Nightmares can’t kill you.

There’s a common myth that if you die in a dream, you die in real life. But that’s just not true.

It’s also impossible to be stuck in a dream. No matter how bad it is, you will wake up. No human can sleep forever after all.

What causes bad dreams in adults?

Dreams are a difficult subject because there’s so much we don’t know about them yet. But here’s what we do know.

They happen in the REM stage of sleep and are there to help you process your thoughts, feelings, memories, and emotions from that day. Without it, we’d have difficulty remembering what happened that day.

Most bad dreams are caused by problems or worries in our life that our brain is trying to process. In fact, a 2014 study found that most nightmares were based on feelings of failure, worry, confusion, sadness, and guilt.

It’s not about fear, it’s about our brain trying to work through and solve the problems the dreams represent.

Interestingly, the same study also found that men are more likely to have bad dreams with themes of violence or physical aggression, whereas women’s bad dreams focused on relationship conflicts. Or in my case, giant spiders.

What are the most common bad dreams in adults?

As we stated earlier, bad dreams happen when your brain is trying to process a worry or problem in your life. It’s your job to figure out what that problem is.

Dreams are uniquely yours. But there are a lot of themes and events that are common and shared by us all. So, to help get you started on analysing your dreams, we’ve put together a quick list of the 10 most common bad dreams and what they might mean.

1. Your teeth are falling out

What Are The Causes Of Bad Dreams In Adults? (3)

No matter how many times we might have discussed this dream, it still creeps me out.

(Video) What is Nightmare Disorder? (Symptoms, Causes, Treatment, Prevention)

Generally, this dream has two main interpretations. The first is to do with your self-image or how others perceive you. After all, if your teeth start falling out I’m not sure you’ll leave the most glowing impression on others.

The second is to do with communication. If you’ve suddenly lost your teeth, it will impact your speech. This could represent not being able to communicate honestly about a situation, or perhaps feeling like your voice is never heard.

2. You’re being chased

In this dream, someone or something is chasing you. You might be running from them, or feel like you’re stuck to the spot unable to move.

Luckily, this doesn’t mean something is coming after you. Instead, it can mean that you’re trying to reach a goal and are stuck in your progress, unable to move forward.

Being chased can also symbolise a problem that you’ve been ignoring rearing its head. But, as our last dream article pointed out, this can be a good thing. This dream could inspire you to face your problems head-on, symbolising that you’ve run out of time to run away from them.

3. You’re falling

Falling is reportedly one of the most common nightmares of all time.

Falling is the ultimate surrender of control. You can do nothing to slow your speed or determine where you end up, which can symbolise a fear of new changes happening in your life that you have no control over.

4. Being naked at the wrong time

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There is a time and a place to be naked. A common dream is to get this wrong, turning up naked to an event that will leave you feeling beyond embarrassed.

Embarrassment is the key emotion at play here. This dream is normally about any type of embarrassment or insecurities you may feel in a particular environment or a growing feeling that you do not belong.

5. Being late or unprepared

There’s an important test you need to take and you keep failing it. You turn up without a pen and you can’t write any answers down. You go to a job interview without learning the name of the company. You’re late to your own wedding… etc.

You get the picture.

Sometimes these dreams are rather self-explanatory. There’s something important coming up and you’re anxious that you’re not prepared for it.

6. Death

No, this one isn’t about the actual grim reaper (I mean, typically it isn’t. I don’t judge).

(Video) How to Stop Having Nightmares: 9 Tools for Stopping Nightmares and Bad Dreams

This is where you dream about you, or someone you care about, dying. Like the card in tarot, death isn’t as bad as you think. It can mean a literal end to a stage of your life, like the end of a job or relationship.

When something ends, something else will begin. It’s all about change.

7. Being unable to find a toilet

What Are The Causes Of Bad Dreams In Adults? (5)

Even though this may sound silly, it’s a pretty common bad dream.

This is less about needing the toilet but more what it represents: quiet, personal time and needs. If you can’t find one in your dreams, it may be that you’re struggling to get this in real life, putting the needs of others before your own.

8. Flying

Okay, flying is a pretty vague category here. That’s because there are two main types of bad flying dreams that you could have.

The first is where you want to fly, but something is stopping this from happening. This could represent a goal that you want to reach or the next stage in your life that you can’t get to because someone or something is holding you back.

The second common flying dream is a fear of flying. This could be down a phobia of flying, which is relatively common. But if you’re okay with flying when awake, this dream could represent you struggling to keep up with the expectations or goals that you’ve set yourself. Instead of someone else holding you back, the problem is you and the confidence to move forward.

9. Being in an out of control vehicle

Similar to flying, being in cars (or other vehicles) represent us taking a journey to the next stage in our lives.

But if you can’t control the vehicle, it may be because you feel like you’re veering off-track into a different path in your life or are feeling lost.

10. Feeling trapped

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Feeling trapped in a dream is relatively self-explanatory and can have representations of feeling stuck or unable to get out of a certain situation in your life.

How do I stop having bad dreams?

The best and most sure-fire, way to stop your bad dreams is to get to the root of the problem and confront the issues that are causing them.

Bad dreams are your body’s way of processing problems. So listen to it and trust your gut instinct to try and work them out. But while you’re in that process, here are some tips you can follow to ease your nights and try and get a more restful night’s sleep.

1. Keep yourself busy in the day

Your dreams are your body’s way of processing everything that happened in the day. If you keep busy, you’re supplying it with new material to use instead of reverting back to the same old worries and problems that are causing your bad dreams.

(Video) What is Nightmare Disorder?

So, keep yourself active and seek out new experiences to take your mind off your worries.

2. Read a book before going to sleep

Reading is another way to give your brain brand new material to focus on and dream about during the night.

And unlike watching TV or any other screen activity, it won’t interfere with you getting to sleep. This is because screens emit blue light, interfering with the production of melatonin and making it more difficult for you to sleep at night.

3. Meditate

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Meditation is a great way to clear your mind of thoughts and take a breath from any problem that’s swirling around in your head. And if you can calm your thoughts down before going to sleep, you’re much more likely to have a nightmare-free night.

There are a lot of meditation tips you can read online to get you started, or you could even try out apps like Headspace to listen to simple, guided practices to follow.

Can certain foods give you nightmares?

We’ve all heard the myth that cheese gives you nightmares.

While this isn’t necessarily true, sometimes a pre-bedtime snack can increase your chances of bad dreams. This is because eating increases your metabolism, making your brain more active. The more active your brain is, the more intense and possibly vivid your REM sleep will be.

For a soundless night, it’s recommended to avoid eating right before bed.

When should you get help?

If you’re still suffering from bad dreams after trying the above tips, book an appointment with your GP to discuss the issue and what other steps can be done to help.

This is because bad dreams could also be triggered by certain sleep conditions or other problems, such as obstructive sleep apnoea, restless legs syndrome or even migraines.

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Bad dreams can also be caused by certain medications, such as anti-depressants. So if you’re suffering because of this, you may need to see your doctor to adjust your dose and help you sleep better at night.

Get rid of the bad dreams and sleep soundlessly

As we’ve covered in this article, bad dreams are caused by underlying problems or worries in your own life that your mind is trying to process. This means that the best way to combat them is to analyse your dreams, uncovering what the problem is and facing it head-on.

But that might not be an easy or straightforward fix as it sounds. This is particularly true if the problems are caused by a dislike of your job or heartbreak over your recent breakup. Finding a new job that you need is a time-consuming process that’s mostly determined by luck – and well, breakups take time.

(Video) Night Terrors or Nightmares? Sleep Disorders Explained

But while you’re facing these problems, the above tips will help ease the bad dreams and help you get on track for a peaceful night’s sleep.

Need any more tips on getting to sleep? We’ve got you covered. Discover our helpful advice and tips on getting the best night’s sleep here.


How do you stop nightmares in adults? ›

Lifestyle and home remedies
  1. Establish a regular, relaxing routine before bedtime. A consistent bedtime routine is important. ...
  2. Offer reassurances. ...
  3. Talk about the dream. ...
  4. Rewrite the ending. ...
  5. Put stress in its place. ...
  6. Provide comfort measures. ...
  7. Use a night light.
5 Jun 2021

What triggers bad dreams? ›

For some people, medicines, alcohol, drugs, lack of sleep, fever, or anxiety sometimes cause nightmares. Often, though, nightmares seem to be triggered by emotional issues at home or school, major life changes (such as a move), trauma, and stress — even if what happens in the nightmares seems unrelated to your life.

What are nightmares trying to tell you? ›

Indeed, studies suggest that nightmares are often linked to unmet psychological needs and/or frustration with life experiences. Yet those links aren't always easy to make—except in cases of trauma (discussed below), our nightmares tend to reflect our troubles through metaphor rather than literal representation.

What causes sudden nightmares in adults? ›

In adults, the most common conditions associated with recurrent nightmares are acute stress disorder, posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, and anxiety. Certain medications and substances can induce or exacerbate nightmares, during either treatment or withdrawal (table 1).

What is the best medication for nightmares? ›

Pharmacologic Treatment Options

The following may be used for the treatment of PTSD-associated nightmares: the atypical antipsychotics olanzapine, risperidone and aripiprazole, clonidine, cyproheptadine, fluvoxamine, gabapentin, nabilone, phenelzine, prazosin, topiramate, trazodone, and tricyclic antidepressants.

Is having nightmares every night normal? ›

It's normal for both children and adults to have bad dreams and nightmares every now and again.

Do bad dreams mean anything? ›

Since all dreams including nightmares are a result of the brain's electrical activity during sleep, they do not signify or mean anything specific. The subjects of nightmares can vary from person to person.

What are examples of bad dreams? ›

We all have bad dreams and nightmares – whether it's being chased, our teeth falling out, or finding ourselves naked in the middle of the high street.
10 Common Nightmares & Their Meanings
  • Teeth falling out. ...
  • Being chased. ...
  • Unable to find a toilet. ...
  • Naked in public. ...
  • Unprepared for an exam. ...
  • Flying. ...
  • Falling. ...
  • Out of control vehicle.
5 Jul 2016

Can a dream be a warning? ›

In one study, a third to a half of the 1,000 surveyed reported having “anomalous” dreams. Many of us have premonitions, warning “flashes” that alert us to an unseen danger or a fortuitous event. Perhaps we dream about a plane crash and cancel our flight.

What is the most common nightmare? ›

Nightmares about falling were followed closely by dreams about being chased (more than 63 percent). Other distressing nightmares included death (roughly 55 percent), feeling lost (almost 54 percent), feeling trapped (52 percent), and being attacked (nearly 50 percent).

What worst nightmare means? ›

Definition of worst nightmare

: the thing someone fears most Losing a child is every parent's worst nightmare.

What are stress dreams? ›

Stress dreams are distressing or anxiety-provoking dreams or nightmares that occur during your REM cycle, which is the stage of sleep when scientists think most dreaming occurs. They can be particularly vivid or recurrent. While everyone's dreams can be different, there are a few common types of stress dreams.

Do dreams have meaning? ›

Domhoff also emphasized that while dreams can have meaning, his research suggests they aren't symbolic. During sleep, people don't appear to be able to access the parts of the brain involved with understanding or generating metaphors, he said.

What can doctors do for nightmares? ›

Treatment for nightmares in adults depends on what may be causing them. If you're having nightmares caused by a traumatic event, a GP may recommend psychological treatment such as counselling. If you have a condition that affects your sleep, treatment will usually involve trying to manage the condition better.

How do you stop having weird dreams? ›

In fact, there a few strategies you can try for preventing weird dreams or calming yourself down after they occur:
  1. Reduce stress. How you spend your time right before bed can impact your dreams once you fall asleep, Stahl says. ...
  2. Relaxation techniques. ...
  3. Try dream rehearsal. ...
  4. Stick to a sleep routine.
2 Aug 2021

Can vitamin deficiency cause nightmares? ›

Therefore, decreased serum vitamin D levels and decreased calcium intake may be associated with the development of nightmares and bad dreams indirectly through their association with the psychological symptoms and MSP.

Why am I dreaming every night all of a sudden? ›

Excessive dreaming is usually attributed to sleep fragmentation and the consequent ability to remember dreams due to the successive awakenings. The dreams usually have no particular character, but sometimes they might include situations associated with drowning or suffocation.

What are the 3 types of dreams? ›

Types of Dreams: A Mini Series Part 3
  • 1) Daydream – Daydreaming is classified as a level of consciousness between sleep and wakefulness. ...
  • 2) False Awakening Dreams – I know this has happened to me several times in the morning. ...
  • 3) Lucid Dreams – Lucid dreams occur when you realize you are dreaming.
21 Jun 2013

How can I find out what a dream means? ›

How to Figure Out What Your Dreams Really Mean
  1. As soon as you wake up, write down everything you can recall about your dream, recording as many objects, people and locations as possible. ...
  2. Write down the association each detail carries for you. ...
  3. Write down the emotions the dream sparked.

Are nightmares good for you? ›

But nightmares, while scary, aren't always a bad thing. In many cases, they may help the dreamer ameliorate some of their daytime anxieties. Research has found that nightmares can help some people learn to better manage stress.

Should I go back to sleep after a nightmare? ›

If after your nightmare you needed some time to walk around, drink some water, meditate and so on. Then once you have calmed yourself back down, get back into bed.

Do dreams have a message? ›

Our dreams heal us, inform us, warn us, and bring us spiritual wisdom. Transforming the symbols in a dream from their raw form to meaning is an alchemical process. Sometimes, the message from a dream is not immediately known, but if we can be patient and give them time, they will slowly reveal themselves.

Can dreams reveal truths? ›

"People tend to think that dreams reveal hidden emotions and beliefs and they often find them to be more meaningful than thoughts they might have when they are awake," Morewedge tells WebMD. "But we also found that people don't attribute equal meaning to all dreams."

Do we remember dreams? ›

Everyone dreams, but many people do not remember their dreams upon waking. However, it is difficult to say exactly why one person can remember their dreams and another person cannot. Dreams may arise when the brain sorts information into short- and long-term memory.

Why do I remember my dreams? ›

“There's a region in your brain called the temporoparietal junction, which processes information and emotions. This region can also put you in a state of intra-sleep wakefulness, which, in turn, allows your brain to encode and remember dreams better,” Julie Lambert, certified sleep expert, explains.

How do I get back to sleep after a nightmare? ›

How to go back to sleep after a nightmare
  1. Use the 4-7-8 breathing technique or other mediation technique to slow your heart rate and breathing.
  2. Leave the room or try sleeping somewhere else.
  3. Listen to music that makes you feel calm.
  4. Focus your attention on something else for a few minutes.
25 Nov 2020

What do dreams of death mean? ›

Recurring dreams about death can be the result of ongoing stress and unresolved issues. Try to identify the cause of stress in your waking life. Confronting the issue may help stop the dreams. You can also ease into a more peaceful sleep by scheduling wind-down time before you go to bed.

Can you turn off a nightmare? ›

If you can realize you're in a nightmare, the simplest way to stop it is to make yourself wake up, Arthuro said. But some evidence suggests that it's possible to stay in the nightmare but eliminate your fear by knowing you aren't in physical danger, according to Arthuro.

What does it mean when you have the same dream 3 times in a row? ›

Many theories agree that recurring dreams are related to unresolved difficulties or conflicts in the dreamer's life. The presence of recurrent dreams has also been associated with lower levels of psychological wellbeing and the presence of symptoms of anxiety and depression.

Should you wake a person who is having a nightmare? ›

And although some may last a while or remain in your memory during waking hours, bad dreams are generally nothing to worry about. Now, if the person lashes out, bangs his head against the wall or does anything else physically dangerous to himself or you, it's probably a good idea to gently wake him.

What is it called when you have constant nightmares? ›

Nightmare disorder, also known as dream anxiety disorder, is a sleep disorder characterized by frequent nightmares. The nightmares, which often portray the individual in a situation that jeopardizes their life or personal safety, usually occur during the REM stages of sleep.

Can dreams cause panic attacks? ›

An anxiety dream, in short, usually refers to any dream that causes stress or distress. You might feel panicked or nervous during the dream, but these emotions might also linger after you wake up, and your general unease might persist throughout the day.

What causes anxious dreams? ›

Anxiety dreams can be caused by unresolved distress in your life and when you're going through emotionally-charged experiences. Some anxiety dreams — like persistent nightmares — may be signs of an underlying mental health condition like GAD or PTSD.

Does remembering your dreams mean you slept well? ›

Remembering your dreams doesn't necessarily have anything to do with how restful your sleep is, Dr. Harris says. Instead, recalling those dreams is a lot more likely to depend on a number of factors, from your current level of stress to the medication you're taking.

What part of the brain controls nightmares? ›

Barrett says that in post-traumatic nightmares, the region of the brain involved in fear behaviors, including the amygdala, a structure deep in the brain that works to identify potential threats, may be overactive or overly sensitive.

Is there medication to stop nightmares? ›

Prazosin has been shown, in several published studies, to significantly reduce nightmares and improve sleep in patients suffering from PTSD.

What medications stop dreams? ›

Topiramate and gabapentin, which are second- and third-line mood stabilizers, are also cited among therapeutic alternatives that can be used in the case of PTSD (125, 126). They induce a significant reduction of nightmares and improve sleep quality.

What does my recurring nightmare mean? ›

Recurring nightmares usually have an underlying cause. Sometimes, this cause can be related to stress or anxiety, medication use, or even substance abuse. If you feel that recurring nightmares are affecting your quality of life, reach out to a doctor or mental health professional.

What is it called when you have constant nightmares? ›

Nightmare disorder, also known as dream anxiety disorder, is a sleep disorder characterized by frequent nightmares. The nightmares, which often portray the individual in a situation that jeopardizes their life or personal safety, usually occur during the REM stages of sleep.

What do you do after a nightmare? ›

How to Go Back to Sleep After a Nightmare
  1. Practice Deep Breathing. Focused breathing relaxes your muscles and get oxygen flowing through your body again. ...
  2. Distract Yourself With Other Activities. ...
  3. Write What Happened in the Nightmare but Change the Ending.
14 Mar 2022

Can nightmare disorder go away? ›

Behavioral changes have proven effective for 70% of adults who suffer from nightmares, including those caused by anxiety, depression, and PTSD. Imagery rehearsal treatment is a promising cognitive behavioral therapy for recurrent nightmares and nightmares caused by PTSD.

What is the difference between a night terror and a nightmare? ›

Sleep terrors differ from nightmares. The dreamer of a nightmare wakes up from the dream and may remember details, but a person who has a sleep terror episode remains asleep. Children usually don't remember anything about their sleep terrors in the morning.

Does high blood pressure cause nightmares? ›

Nightmares as warning signs

Individuals with heart conditions such as high blood pressure may have lower oxygen levels in the brain, which will cause disturbances during the sleep cycle. Use of beta-blockers for blood pressure may also cause regular nightmares because of the way these pills alter brain chemicals.

Why do I remember my dreams? ›

“There's a region in your brain called the temporoparietal junction, which processes information and emotions. This region can also put you in a state of intra-sleep wakefulness, which, in turn, allows your brain to encode and remember dreams better,” Julie Lambert, certified sleep expert, explains.

How do you stop having weird dreams? ›

How to calm dreams
  1. Don't dwell on dreams. If you wake up during an intense dream or nightmare, Martin says accept that dreams are a normal part of emotional processing during stressful times. ...
  2. Feed your brain positive images. ...
  3. Take care of your sleep. ...
  4. Practice self-care. ...
  5. Talk about your stress and anxiety.
15 Jul 2020

What are the most common recurring dreams? ›

What Are the Most Common Recurring Dreams?
  • Falling.
  • Flying.
  • Car crashes.
  • Looking for a toilet.
  • Being overwhelmed by house maintenance.
  • Not being able to speak.
  • Losing teeth.
  • Being attacked.
30 Jun 2022

Can mental illness cause nightmares? ›

While many adults may have the occasional nightmare, frequent nightmares are less likely. If you find that your disturbing dreams start to become chronic, you may have a mental health condition known as nightmare disorder.

Can depression cause nightmares? ›

Depression causes bad dreams for many people. One study found that 28.4% of participants with severe depression reported frequent nightmares and that depression was one of the strongest indicators of frequent nightmares.


1. Why do we have nightmares?
2. The Science of Nightmares | Mental Health | Dreams
(Travis Gilbert)
3. Nightmares Explained
4. Too scared to close their eyes: treating PTSD nightmares
(The University of Tulsa)
5. What is the difference between Nightmares and Night Terrors?
(Dr. Todd Grande)
6. Can Certain Foods Cause Nightmares?
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