How to Handle Disturbing Dreams

For years, sleep researchers have tried to figure out exactly why we dream and what our dreams really mean. Theories abound, but none are proven. Dreams are recognized as a form of thinking, however, and, at one time or another, most of us have had to deal with some pretty disturbing thoughts.

Behind the Scenes

Nightmares, which are particularly lucid, scary dreams, are especially common after a tragedy or traumatic event. Frightening dreams interfere with sleep and cause physical symptoms such as increased heart rate and blood pressure. The anxiety caused by a nightmare can make it difficult to go back to sleep and may carry through to the next day. According to University of Maryland Medical Center, at least half of all adults experience nightmares from time to time, and women are more prone to frightening dreams than men.

Not only do nightmares cause anxiety; anxiety is one of the chief causes of nightmares. Alcohol, some drugs, brain disorders and low blood sugar are also linked to nightmares and night terrors. The best way to handle a nightmare depends somewhat on the cause.

If anxiety is causing you to have frightening dreams or recurring nightmares, the best thing you can do is to get to the root of the anxiety or stress, and solve it, according to doctors at the Medical College of Wisconsin. If you can't resolve anxiety on your own, discuss the problem with your physician or a psychotherapist.

Try This

Therapists often use specific behavioral techniques to try to reduce the occurrence of nightmares. These include relaxation training and dream imagery rehearsal therapy, which is something you can try at home. Write down the dream as it happened, then revise it to include a new, positive scenario. Go over this new, improved script throughout the day, and just prior to falling asleep again, to avoid having the same or similar nightmare again.

Some medications, such as hypnotics, sedatives, stimulants and antidepressants beta-blockers and dopamine agonists, can cause nightmares, as can withdrawal of certain medications and alcohol. If you are experiencing nightmares you think might be related to medication, discuss these associations with your prescribing physician.

A particular type of sleep disorder results in night terrors, which cause sudden wakening and a feeling of deep fear. If you experience a night terror, you will wake up screaming or crying out, and you may not remember having a bad dream. One difference between a nightmare and a night terror is that nightmares occur most often in early morning, during lighter phases of sleep, while night terrors usually occur early on in the night, during a deeper stage of sleep.

If you have nightmares following a trauma, you can consider them part of the normal healing process, according to the International Association for the Study of Dreams. As you heal, nightmares will most likely begin to subside, usually within the course of several weeks. If not, it may be time to consider psychotherapy or some form of professional behavioral counseling.


Domhoff, G.W. "The Case Against the Problem-Solving Theory of Dreaming." University of California, Santa Cruz. (Unpublished Paper.) Aug 2004. Web. 20 Aug 2010.

International Association for the Study of Dreams

Malhotra, S., Arnold, R and Patterson, K. "Nightmares: Fast Facts and Concepts." Medical College of Wisconsin. April 2009. Web. Aug 2010.

University of Maryland Medical Center (UMMC)

UMMC. "Nightmares." 15 Dec 2008. Web. 20 Aug 2010.

UMMC "Night Terrors." 2 Jun 2009. Web. 20 Aug 2010.