Boots WebMD Partners in Health
Return To Boots

Sleep health centre

Select a topic to explore more.
Select An Article

Adult nightmares

When you wake up terrified from a disturbing nightmare, you may feel as if you're the only person who has them. After all, aren't adults supposed to have outgrown nightmares?

While it's true that nightmares are more common among children, one out of every two adults has nightmares from time to time. The exact frequency of nightmares is uncertain, but it is likely that between 2% and 8% of the adult population is troubled by nightmares.

Are your nightmares causing you significant distress? Are they interrupting your sleep on a regular basis? If so, it's important to determine what's causing your adult nightmares. Then you can make changes to reduce their occurrence.

What are nightmares?

Nightmares are vividly realistic, disturbing dreams that jolt you awake from a deep sleep. They often set your heart pounding from fear. Nightmares tend to occur most often during rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, when most dreaming takes place. Because periods of REM sleep become progressively longer as the night progresses, you may find you experience nightmares most often in the early morning hours.

The subjects of nightmares vary from person to person. There are, though, some common nightmares that many people experience. For example, a lot of adults have nightmares about not being able to run fast enough to escape danger, or about falling from a great height. If you've gone through a traumatic event, such as an attack or an accident, you may have recurrent nightmares about your horrifying experience.

As well as nightmares, adults may also occasionally have night terrors, although they more often occur in children. These are experienced as feelings, not dreams, so with a night terror people do not recall why they are terrified upon awakening.

What causes nightmares in adults?

Adult nightmares are often spontaneous. But they can also be caused by a variety of factors and underlying disorders.

Some people have nightmares after having a late-night snack, which can increase the metabolism and signal the brain to be more active. A number of medications also are known to contribute to nightmare frequency. Drugs that act on neurotransmitters, such as antidepressants and narcotics, are often associated with nightmares. Non- psychological medications, including some blood pressure medications, can also cause nightmares in adults.

Withdrawal from medications and substances such as alcohol and tranquilisers, may trigger nightmares. If you notice a difference in your nightmare frequency after a change in medication, talk with your doctor.

Sleep deprivation may contribute to adult nightmares, which themselves often cause people to lose additional sleep. Though it may be a possibility, it has not been confirmed whether this cycle could lead to nightmare disorder.

There can be a number of psychological triggers that cause nightmares in adults. For example, anxiety and depression can cause adult nightmares. Post-traumatic stress disorder ( PTSD) also commonly causes people to experience chronic, recurrent nightmares.

Adult nightmares can be caused by certain sleep disorders. These include sleep apnoea and restless legs syndrome. If no other cause can be determined, chronic nightmares may be a distinct sleep disorder. People who have relatives with nightmare disorder may be more likely to have the condition themselves.

Next Article:

WebMD Medical Reference

Sleep well newsletter

Get tips for better sleep.
Sign Up

WebMD Video: Now Playing

Sleep disorders solutions

Sleep disorders solutions

If you have sleep problems, learn tips on how to feel more rested and fall asleep more quickly.

Popular Slideshows & Tools on Boots WebMD

woman looking at pregnancy test
Early pregnancy symptoms
donut on plate
The truth about sugar addiction
womans toned abdomen
A workout for a toned tummy
79x79_less_is_more_with_exercise.jpg
Which exercises are safe?
hand extinguishing cigarette
13 best tips to stop smoking
Immune-boosting foods
The role of diet
79x79_not_good_for_you.jpg
18 secrets men want you to know
boy looking at broccoli
Quick tips for feeding picky eaters
hamburger and fries
A guide for beginners
salmon dinner
A diet to boost your mood & energy
polka dot dress on hangar
Lose weight without dieting