Why Does Stress Cause Nightmares And What You Can Do About It

Why does stress cause nightmares? Usually, stress is created by our minds. Nightmares are an extension of the creation of stress. Both of these combined lead to scary dreams, because our mind doesn’t know how to stop it from happening.

Stress is often a response to the way our mind perceives the wrongs it has endured. These wrongs than leave us feeling unable to fight back, which then prompts our mind to create scary scenarios where we are forced to fight or flee.

What are Nightmares

For some, nightmares are very vivid. Usually, they are so disturbing that they will wake a person from sleep. I know that most times when I get nightmares, I wake up breathing hard. It feels like I was running for my life.

There are times where I’m waking up still trying to catch my breath. They can usually be scary, not usually almost always they are scary. Nightmares tend to occur when REM sleep is taking place—one of the most profound states of rest.

Not everyone will experience nightmares in the same way. Some will try running away from their fear, while others will feel like they are falling from a great height.

I remember a nightmare I had just a couple of weeks ago, in this dream or rather nightmare I was fighting for my life. The fight felt so real that when I woke up, my heart was pounding, and my face was sweating.

Most nightmares happen randomly, but they are releasing information on what was triggered during our waking moments. Most adults think that they will outgrow nightmares. But no, that isn’t the case.

While it’s true nightmares are common among children, one out of every two adults has nightmares on occasion. In between 2% and 8% of the adult population is plagued by nightmares. (Source: Web MD)

Because most nightmares happen during REM sleep, you’ll find that you experience them most often in the morning.

Why Does Stress Cause Nightmares In Adults

Most often, as adults, we don’t deal with our daily issues concerning our mental-emotional health. This same mental-emotional health is what leads to stress. Often stress can lead to sleep deprivation as well keep negative thoughts steadily on the run, which then leads to scary dreams or nightmares.

Our emotions hold a lot of power over us, especially if there’s a stressful emotion triggering unwanted memories. If we don’t deal with unwanted memories or negative thinking, then our internal psyche tries to deal with it by having us relive it as a nightmare.

Unfortunately, that doesn’t work; instead, it just stresses us out more and, in the process, scares us from falling back to sleep.

Why Does Stress Cause Nightmares In Children

Stress is essential to survival not only for adults but children as well. In children, stress is the “fight or flight” response. Often this response shows up in their dreams. For children, it can start to undermine their mental and physical health as well as become harmful to them.

Nightmares will stop your child from going to sleep, which will then affect their daily life. Most times, I know that when my children don’t get enough sleep, they usually wake up angry. This then turns into a catch 22. No way to let go of the anger because the nightmare won’t let them sleep.

The stress of this can weigh heavily on their little minds. To them, it feels like carrying a load, not knowing what to expect when going to bed at night. Many children develop insomnia due to the stress of not wanting to go to sleep because of the nightmares.

Even anxiety becomes a part of their nightly routine. The stress is so bad that they don’t want their parent to leave their room. This then creates a hardship for both parent and child.

Nightmares Happen Most Whenwhat causes nightmares

  • Another sleep disorder

Some people will experience nightmares due to changes in their sleep schedule. The sleep schedule could be changed due to insomnia or restless leg syndrome. Insomnia is when a person has trouble falling asleep, and when they do, they have difficulty staying asleep, usually waking up due to a nightmare.

Restless leg syndrome is when there is an itch, or our legs are always moving around. The anxiety of having this happen follows us right into the dream world. In our dreams, the restlessness turns into a fear.

  • Having watched a scary movie or read a scary book

My wife cannot read scary books or watch scary movies. If by any chance she does watch a scary movie or read a scary book before going to bed, she wakes up having panic attacks.

  • Medication use

Some medications can induce nightmares. These medications are usually in the form of antidepressants, blood pressure, beta-blockers, or drugs used to treat Parkinson’s disease. Some people who try to quit smoking will use patches, which can also lead to nightmares.

  • Depression

Depression is a familiar harbinger of nightmares. Anything that is a link to our mental health, which induces stress on our body, will cause nightmares. Depression is right up there for inducing stress.

  • Substance abuse

When people are trying to quit, substance abuse or they haven’t been able to use, will often experience nightmares. Withdrawal plays heavily on their stress response, and this leads to unwanted scary dreams.

  • Health Issues

My wife is currently dealing with cancer. Just the thought of having cancer is a substantial stressful load on her. That stress causes her to have nightmares of her death and not being there for her children. It’s the same with any other health issue; most of us want to live. Usually, death plays a significant role in our nightmares.

Complications Of Nightmares

One of the main difficulties of nightmares is losing sleep. When you lose sleep then you can’t function at your optimal best the next day. But there are also other complications such as:

  • Insomnia
  • Stress
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Ill health effects
  • Weight gain
  • Slow responding immune system

Physically our body may feel tired the next day. Emotionally when we wake up from a nightmare, we feel anger, sadness, and fear. We even sometimes recall vivid details of our dream, which then stresses our mind out to the point that it stops responding to rhyme or reason.

How To Get Past Stress Nightmares

In order to get past stress, nightmares is to get to the bottom of what it is that is stressing you out. I know easier said than done. Sometimes you might even have to search out professional help for this. There are many places you can seek out medical attention, starting with your doctor.

Your doctor can perform a physical exam to identify what it is that is bringing on the nightmares. You may even have to journal them down to see if there is a recurrent nightmare happening. Recurring nightmares often indicate underlying anxiety; your doctor will then refer you to a mental health professional.

Another thing that might be done is a nocturnal sleep study (polysomnography). Your doctor will refer you to a sleeping clinic in order to help determine what is causing the nightmare or to see if they are connected to another sleep disorder.

Leaving Stress Behindleaving stress behind

One of the ways that I find to leave stress behind is by mentally visualizing blowing stress away. My wife also practices that nightly. Not saying that it can work all the time, but usually, it does.

It’s a form of meditation when you are sitting your bed with your eyes closed. All you really have to do is taking a deep breath, and as you release the breath, imagine that you are pushing all your stress away. You can also use stress release balls to wave it away as well. Some people use weighted blankets to help deal with anxiety.

Another technique that works really well when leaving stress behind is by rehearsing a new ending to your nightmare. Rather than falling or dying in your dream, why not catch yourself before you fall or prevent your death. You can use whatever means possible to rewrite the ending. Remember it’s your story, get as creative as you want.  

So back to our question, why does stress cause nightmares? Only you know what your stress is. But by dealing with you can make the nightmares go away.

Tip: White noise machines can be used for children and adults to remove stress. 

Share your thoughts below on how you deal with stress-induced nightmares.

8 thoughts on “Why Does Stress Cause Nightmares And What You Can Do About It”

  1. I always have nightmares when my boss runs in a bad mood and spoils my day at work. In my dream, she would repeat herself – in a more heinous way – and ‘torment’ me till my heart explode. It was only in recent years that I’m experiencing this. More so when I’m overloaded with work and barely have the time to rest. Believe it or not, the nightmare episodes is one of the reasons that make me want to quit my job. 

    • I agree that kind of stress-inducing can be pretty intense. Hopefully, you can find good remedies ( be sure to create your own scenario a try), to put yourself in a good place before sleeping at night. 

  2. When I was a child, I used to have nightmares that are so wild my parents told me I was screaming out loud. But the funny thing was, after waking up and falling asleep again, I was able to continue the dream with an ending that’s favorable to me. I also wonder how was that possible? So, after reading this article, I now understand it’s really possible to come up with a good ending.

    I know not everyone will agree with me but prayer has helped me get a sound sleep these days. It has helped me relieve some stress and leave all the worries behind.

    • Thanks for sharing your stress releasing strategy. 

  3. I believe research on this matter varies on what actually causes nightmares but stress seems to be a common theme I have read on in a variety of studies. I found some of the remedies suggested here could be very helpful. Utilizing devices such as stress release balls and weighted blankets could be very effective in dealing with day to day stress and help cut down the number of nightmares a person may experience. I think finding activities that reduce stress could be helpful as well such as exercise and spending time with loved ones. For me, I like a warm beverage before I go to bed to help me relax and release stress before bed time.

  4.  I lost my mother November last year and have subsequently suffered from nightmares. The stress (grief) of her passing definitely was the cause because prior to that I was absolutely fine and never had bad dreams. Only by adressing my grief through counselling was I able to bring down the stress and the nightmares eventually completely vanished. It took me about 3 months to have a full recovery. Thanks for a very informative article Eric.


    • Sorry for your loss, but thanks for stopping by and sharing your experience.


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