We’ve all had them, those dreams in the middle of the night filled with terrifying images that haunt us and flood us with feelings of fear, anxiety, or sadness. It usually involves some kind of dangerous situation like falling or drowning, a scary object or animal like snakes or haunted houses, or even people we know or demonic versions of them.

Sometimes nightmares can be mild and simple like falls, which wake us up quickly. Other times, nightmares seem so vivid and real that they literally scare us even after we wake up. We learned long ago as kids that these bad dreams weren’t actually caused by the monsters in our closet, but why exactly do nightmares happen?

There are a variety of physical and psychological reasons why nightmares occur. For example, having a high fever can cause a variety of nightmares. Sleeping in a place such as very narrow rooms or low bunk beds or in a position where you are facing a wall or propped up on your pillow can often lead to dreams with a suffocation or drowning theme as you respond to your environment subconscious. Eating right before going to sleep stimulates brain activity that can also cause a person to have nightmares.

Stress is another important factor in nightmares. Just as stress can manifest itself in a physical way, your dreams are also affected by the stress levels in your life, often leading to nightmares. In particular, nightmares that have a sense of failure, of being persecuted by an enemy, of being captured or unfairly persecuted may be the result of stress. Some people believe that all these things are manifestations of the anxieties that the stress they experience imposes on them psychologically.

Other reasons why nightmares occur can be due to psychological issues such as post-traumatic stress disorder or the stress of a recent upsetting experience where the person continues to relieving traumatic events while sleeping. Nightmares sometimes appear in people who have blocked traumatic events from their conscious memory, but because events from their past are always present in their subconscious, they can sometimes manifest as nightmares.

Whatever the underlying reason the nightmares occur; There are a few things you can do to help minimize the occurrence of these negative dreams. Being calm and sleeping in a relaxing environment can help alleviate any anxiety or stress you may experience throughout the day to help prevent stress from creeping into your sleep. Taking a relaxing bath before bed, sprinkling aromatherapy scents, and using natural sounds like soothing waves to help cut out street noise can help create a peaceful place to sleep.

If you have frequent, recurring nightmares that interfere with the quality of your sleep or prevent you from getting enough sleep, talk to a health care provider to discuss other options.

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