What do nightmares mean?

Nightmares can be really distressing and keep us busy far beyond sleep. We'll explain here why they happen, what bad dreams mean and what you can do to deal with nightmares better.

 Table of Contents

  1. What are nightmares?
  2. What do nightmares mean?
  3. How do nightmares arise?
  4. Causes of nightmares
  5. Are nightmares dangerous?
  6. What can you do about nightmares?
  7. Conclusion

1. What are nightmares?

Nightmares are intense and extremely stressful dreams that are usually accompanied by negative feelings such as fear, sadness, anger or disgust. In contrast to “normal” bad dreams, you are woken from your sleep and can clearly remember the content of the dream the next morning. Nightmares occur more often in the second half of the night because we spend more time in REM sleep. A nightmare can last from a few minutes to 20 or 30 minutes and ends when you wake up, usually wide awake and lucid.

Each of us has certainly had bad dreams at some point. However, experiencing frequent nightmares (3-4 times per week) is considered a serious nightmare disorder in sleep medicine.

Nightmares occur particularly in children between the ages of 6 and 11, but can also occur again and again in adulthood. Women are affected up to three times more often than men. You can read about why we dream at all here.

2. What do nightmares mean?

When we dream, we process the experiences and thoughts of the day. In nightmares we encounter our greatest fears and threats, which stress us emotionally and make us think. The bad dreams can certainly have a real background and process stress, stress or worries from everyday life. Some researchers also believe that nightmares could serve as a kind of training for us to deal with internal conflicts. Our brain basically runs through different possibilities and tries to capture diffuse or unconscious emotions in concrete images. Confronting these fears and feelings in dreams gives us the chance to perceive them and learn how to deal with them.

However, being woken up from a nightmare has a lasting effect and the emotions awakened often continue to bother us when we are awake the next day.

The most common content of nightmares:

  1. Fall into the depths

  2. Persecution by other people

  3. Immobility

  4. Delay for an important appointment

  5. Disappearance or death of a close person

  6. Movie scene

  7. Failure at work or an exam

  8. Physical defense against attackers

3. How do nightmares arise?

Schlafmagazin: Albträume halten Mann nachts wach

Dreams take place in all phases of sleep, but are experienced particularly intensely in REM sleep , which occurs more frequently in the second half of the night. When dreaming, the areas of the brain responsible for processing emotions are highly active - the so-called limbic system and in particular the amygdala, which plays a role in processing negative feelings such as fear and anger. At the same time, the body is in sleep paralysis, in which muscle tension decreases and we cannot move. The inability to move sometimes also finds its way into dreams, for example when you want to flee from danger but simply stand still or want to scream for help and remain completely silent.

Why nightmares occur can have various reasons. A lot of stress, strong psychological stress, trauma and a “thin-skinned” personality can increase nightmares and their lastingly stressful effects. But individual experiences, scenes from a film you have watched or taking certain medications can also promote the development of nightmares.

4. Causes of nightmares

Biological predisposition

Nightmares can actually be genetic, this was examined in a study of identical and fraternal twins.

Stress and strain in everyday life

Stress takes a mental and physical toll. This often results in intense negative feelings such as sadness, anger, fear or frustration, so that people with low stress resistance are also more likely to have nightmares.


Sensitive or nervous people reach high levels of stress more quickly and perceive situations or feelings more intensely. After a grueling horror film, intense action scenes or similar experiences, you may have bad dreams. A negative self-image and low life satisfaction can also promote bad dreams.

Mental illnesses / traumatic experiences

Traumatic and frightening experiences have a strong impact on the psyche and nervous system, as a result of which nightmares occur more frequently. But depression, anxiety disorders and other mental illnesses can also be a cause of nightmares.

Take medication

Nightmares are one of the side effects of many medications, especially medications that affect the nervous system and on a psychological level. These include certain sleeping pills, antidepressants, and some blood pressure and cholesterol-lowering medications or medications for neurological diseases such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's. If you are taking medication and suffer from nightmares, you should speak to your doctor directly and not stop taking the medication yourself.

5. Are nightmares dangerous?

No matter whether you fly or fall into a black hole: nightmares are generally not life-threatening. The body is in sleep paralysis during REM sleep, so movements in the dream world are not actively carried out. When nightmares occur repeatedly, they can lead to lack of sleep and mental discomfort. They can also cause stress and worry beyond the night. Last but not least, many people also look for meaning in their dreams and sometimes get lost in details that the brain could have randomly drawn from memory . If you experience nightmares more than 3 times per week and for a long period of time, you should contact a doctor or therapist.

6. What can you do about nightmares?

Dreams play an important role in memory formation, which is why you can't do without them completely. To avoid frequent occurrences of stressful nightmares or To prevent immediate awakening during or after a nightmare, the main thing is to reduce stress and achieve mental balance. Anyone who experiences many stressful events during the day probably processes them immediately the following night.

In addition, psychotherapeutic methods are best suited because dreaming ultimately takes place in the brain and is closely linked to the emotional system. Anyone who suffers from traumatic or psychological stress should definitely seek professional help and work through what they have experienced therapeutically.

One of the best-known methods of processing fearful experiences and nightmares is the so-called Imagery Rehearsel Therapy. You imagine the event again intensively and try to give the action a logical turn so that the dream ends well and the threat is averted. This type of coping strategy is also recommended by the German Society for Sleep Research and Sleep Medicine (DGSM) for the treatment of nightmares. It consists of 3 steps: confrontation, coping and practicing the new strategy.

Schlafmagazin: Albtraum bewältigen mithilfe Traumtagebuch, Imagery Rehearsal Therapy
  1. Confrontation: Write or record the dream experience in detail, for example in the form of a dream diary.
  2. Coping: Choose a dream and try to find an active solution to the situation you are experiencing. So you think about a new strategy with which you can actively avert the danger/fear/threat. Escape or avoidance strategies such as running away or waking up are rather unfavorable because you are only avoiding the problem. Once you've made a picture, it's best to draw what might help you.
  3. Practice the new strategy: Go through the selected dream and the new strategy again in your imagination every day. Practice it over a period of about 2 weeks to help you internalize the solution and end the internal conflict that caused your nightmare.

7. Conclusion

  • Nightmares are stressful dreams that are accompanied by negative feelings and lead to awakening from sleep.
  • Nightmares could serve as a kind of training for dealing with internal conflicts and processing emotions.
  • To prevent nightmares, you can reduce stress and deal with it using a confrontation coping strategy (also known as Imagery Rehearsal Therapy).

Greetings and see you soon!

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