What causes nightmares?
Nightmares can be a problem not only for small children but even with adults. Although nightmares are largely imaginary and confined to the dream state, their effect can be very real. Even the strongest adult can succumb to sheer terror when faced with a nightmare, and that terror can very well continue to persist even after we have awoken. Some adults who encounter recurring nightmares that are connected to their own traumatic experiences may also fall prey to sleep deprivation that can worsen through time.
If nightmares, especially recurring ones, are left to persist for prolonged periods of time, they can heighten the anxiety levels of an individual, bring forth psychosomatic disorders and induce extreme cases of sleep deprivation resulting in poor cognitive and physical performance in our waking state. There have been documented cases of individuals who consciously deprive themselves of sleep as a way of avoiding recurrent nightmares.
It is thus very important not to ignore the nightmares that have you waking up terrified in the middle of the night. To keep your nightmares from getting out of hand, or from affecting the quality of both your dreaming and waking states, you must make a conscious effort to address them. One important step in resolving or addressing your nightmares is to identify what’s causing these nightmares. There are many factors that can cause or increase the incidence of nightmares. These can range from chemical causes to illnesses and traumatic experiences.
Various chemicals can actually induce nightmares in a person. One common substance is alcohol. Excessive consumption of alcohol can greatly affect your sleep cycle. A common misconception about alcohol is that it is effective in helping one sleep more soundly through the night. While a moderate amount of alcohol can be helpful in inducing sleep, excessive consumption can actually lead to vivid dreams which, more often than not, take the form of nightmares. These nightmares usually occur near the end of your sleep cycle when the alcohol has already worn off. They are extraordinarily vivid because the brain tries to make up for the lost REM phase that was pushed out of your earlier sleep hours due to intoxication and the abnormally prolonged period of deep inactive sleep.
Illnesses may also cause nightmares in some people. In these cases, what really causes the nightmares is not the illness itself but the medicines that have been prescribed for the illness. Some medicines work in a similar manner as alcohol, suppressing your REM phase to induce prolonged deep sleep. As the drugs wear out while you sleep, the remaining REM phase will come in stronger and with more intensity, resulting in nightmares. Among the medicines that are known to cause nightmares are anti-depressants and narcotic drugs as well as those that are known to specifically trigger the suppression or stimulation of brain chemicals.
A personal crisis can also lead to the occurrence of nightmares. High anxiety levels caused by personal crises such as the death of a family member, bankruptcy, or a home foreclosure can find their way into your dream state, as well as shape your dreams and nightmares. Because your waking self is a constant state of fear and anxiety, your dreaming self may not be able to shake off these negative emotions when you enter into the REM phase. These negative emotions may take the form of nightmares which do not necessarily reflect the source of your anxiety but do reflect the level of anxiety that you are presently living with. In some instances, fears that are suppressed during the waking state may be given expression during the dreaming state when the subconscious takes advantage of the conscious mind’s lowered guard.
Traumatic experiences such as wars and violent crimes can also bring on the most difficult type of nightmares – repetitive nightmares. Many war veterans experience repetitive nightmares which usually consist of elements that duplicate their war experiences. In some instances, these nightmares can even occur during the waking state resulting in hallucinations and clinical post-traumatic depression.
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