Although nightmares are more common among children, adults have them too, with women more likely to be affected.
Adult nightmares may be caused by anxiety, stressful situations, sleep disorders or some drugs.
If nightmares cause significant distress, try to figure out what's causing them, and seek medical advice if you have concerns.
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.