A nightmare is a bad dream that brings out strong feelings of fear, terror, distress, or anxiety.
Nightmares usually begin before age 10 and are most often considered a normal part of childhood. They tend to be more common in girls than boys. Nightmares may be triggered by seemingly routine events, such as starting at a new school, taking a trip, or a mild illness in a parent.
Nightmares may continue into adulthood. They can be just one way our brain has of dealing with the stresses and fears of everyday life. One or more nightmares over a short period of time may be caused by:
Nightmares may also be triggered by:
Repeated nightmares may also be a sign of:
Stress is a normal part of life. In small amounts, stress is good. It can motivate you and help you get more done. But too much stress can be harmful.
If you are under stress, ask for support from friends and relatives. Talking about what is on your mind can help.
Other tips include:
If your nightmares started shortly after you began taking a new medication, contact your health care provider. He or she will let you know whether to stop taking that medication.
For nightmares caused by the effects of street drugs or regular alcohol use, ask for advice from your doctor on the safest and most effective way to quit.
Contact your health care provider if:
Your health care provider will examine you and ask questions about the nightmares you are having. Next steps may include:
American Psychiatric Association. Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders. 5th ed. Arlington, Va: American Psychiatric Publishing. 2013.
Aurora RN, Zak RS, Auerbach SH, et al. Best practice guide for the treatment of nightmare disorder in adults. J Clin Sleep Med. 2010;6:389-401.
Chokroverty S, Avidan AY. Sleep and its disorders. In: Daroff RB, Fenichel GM, Jankovic J, Mazziotta JC, eds. Bradley's Neurology in Clinical Practice. 6th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Elsevier Saunders; 2012:chap 68.
Updated by: Fred K. Berger, MD, Addiction and Forensic Psychiatrist, Scripps Memorial Hospital, La Jolla, California. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Isla Ogilvie, PhD, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.
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