Running Scared: It Won't Stop Your Nightmares
by Amy Scholten, MPH
"I have the same dream, over and over. I'm walking down a busy city street at midday. All of a sudden, the sun disappears and I'm all alone. I can't see anyone, but I know someone's following me. I try to run, but my feet stick to the ground. I try to scream, but nothing comes out. I'm helpless and terrified."
An Upsetting Dream
A nightmare is a very upsetting or frightening dream. It usually forces us to wake up, at least partially. The dreamer may feel anger, guilt, sadness, depression or other feelings. However, the most common feelings are fear and anxiety. People have nightmares about many different things.
Anxiety is the most common theme of dreams. Some examples include exploding buildings, being chased by unseen evil, and not being prepared for an exam. Anxiety nightmares may be messages from your unconscious. They may point to a conflict or trauma in your waking life.
Nightmares and Night Terrors
Nightmares are different from night terrors.
Everyone has nightmares from time to time. But some people have nightmare disorder. Nightmare disorder causes nightmares that:
If you have any of these symptoms, talk to your doctor.
Causes of Nightmares
Many things can cause nightmares. Some common ones are:
A Chance to Sort It Out
Dreams can come from emotional conflicts that have not been fixed. These conflicts may go back to childhood. You may want to find out what messages are in your nightmare. This may help you uncover areas of your life that need attention. When an issue is worked out and understood, it is less likely to show up in your nightmares.
Ways to Find Meaning
There are several ways people can work out the meaning of their nightmares.
Keep a Dream Log
Try keeping a dream log and record each night's episodes. Keep a notebook and pen next to your bed. As soon as you wake, ask yourself what you were just thinking about. You will remember your thoughts more easily this way. Write them down and examine them later.
Read Books About Dreams
Another method is to work on finding the messages in your nightmares. Look for books that help you understand general themes of dreams. But keep in mind that dreams and nightmares are personal. They are based on your unique experiences and thought patterns.
Help Children Understand Dreams
It is a bit more difficult to help children deal with their nightmares. Gentle encouragement may help children to discuss their nightmares. If nightmares persist and are very upsetting, a therapist may be needed. The therapist may ask the child to:
Help for Nightmares
Nightmares might teach us about ourselves, but they are still upsetting. It is important to treat problems that can cause nightmares, such as mental health conditions.
It may also help to:
Though nightmares are a part of life, sometimes we can take steps to put them to sleep.
National Sleep Foundation
The Better Sleep Council
Common questions about nightmares. International Association for the Study of Dreams website. Available at:
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Accessed July 1, 2021.
Nightmares and night terrors. Family Doctor—American Academy of Family Physicians website. Available at: https://familydoctor.org/condition/nightmares-and-night-terrors. . Accessed July 1, 2021.
Nightmares. Sleep Foundation website. Available at: https://www.sleepfoundation.org/nightmares. Accessed July 1, 2021.
Night terrors. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: https://www.dynamed.com/condition/night-terrors-15 . Accessed July 1, 2021.
Last reviewed July 1, 2021 by EBSCO Medical Review Board
Last Updated: 7/1/2021
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