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A nightmare is a dream that can cause a strong emotional response from the mind, typically fear or horror, but also despair, anxiety and great sadness. The dream may contain situations of danger, discomfort, psychological or physical terror. Sufferers usually awaken in a state of distress and may be unable to return to sleep for a prolonged period of time.[1]

Nightmares can have physical causes such as sleeping in an uncomfortable or awkward position, having a fever, or psychological causes such as stress, anxiety, and ingestion of opioid drugs used in pain killers such as oxycodone and hydrocodone. Eating before going to sleep, which triggers an increase in the body's metabolism and brain activity, is a potential stimulus for nightmares.[2] Recurrent nightmares that can interfere with sleeping patterns and cause insomnia may require medical help.


"Nightmare" evokes the modern word for a female horse but the terms are wholly unrelated. The word derives from the Old English "mare", a mythological demon or goblin who torments human beings with frightening dreams.[3] Subsequently, the prefix "night-" was added to stress the dream-aspect. The word "nightmare" is cognate with the older German term Nachtmahr.

Incidence and types of nightmare

Studies of dreams have estimated that about 75% of the time, the emotions evoked by dreams are negative.[4] However, it is worth noting that people are more likely to remember unpleasant dreams.

One definition of "nightmare" is a dream which causes one to wake up in the middle of the sleep cycle and experience a negative emotion, such as fear. This type of event occurs on average once per month. They are not common in children under five, but they are more common in young children (25% experiencing a nightmare at least once per week), most common in teenagers, and common in adults (dropping in frequency about one third from age 25 to 55).[4]

Fearfulness in waking life is correlated with the incidence of nightmares.[4]

Treatment of nightmares

Nightmare by Mexican artist Mauricio García Vega.

Both Freud and Jung seemed to have shared a common understanding that people frequently distressed by nightmares could be re-experiencing some stressful event from the past.[5] Both perspectives on dreams suggest that therapy can provide relief from the dilemma of the nightmare experience.

Halliday (1987), grouped treatment techniques into four classes. Direct nightmare interventions that combine compatible techniques from one or more of these classes may enhance overall treatment effectiveness:[6]

Recurring post-traumatic stress disorder nightmares in which real traumas are re-experienced respond well to a technique called imagery rehearsal. First described in the 1996 book Trauma and Dreams[7] by Harvard psychologist Deirdre Barrett, this contemporary dream interpretation involves the dreamer coming up with an alternate, mastery outcome to the nightmare, mentally rehearsing that outcome awake, and then reminding themselves at bedtime that they wish this alternate outcome should the nightmare recur. Research has found that this technique not only reduces the occurrence of nightmares and insomnia,[8] but also improves other daytime PTSD symptoms.[9] According to Bret Moore and Barry Kraków, the most common variations of Imagery Rehearsal Therapy (IRT) "relate to the number of sessions, duration of treatment, and the degree to which exposure therapy is included in the protocol".[10] Another kind of treatment not only helping the reduction of nightmares, sleep disturbance, and other PTSD symptoms is prazosin. There have been multiple studies conducted under placebo-controlled conditions. (Am J Psychiatry 2003; 160:371–373)

A comprehensive model has been put forth by Krakow and Zadra (2006) that includes four group treatment sessions, ~2.25 to 2.5 hr in length. The first two sessions focus on how nightmares are closely connected to insomnia and how they become an independent symptom or disorder that warrants individually tailored and targeted intervention. The last two sessions focus on the imagery system and how IRT can reshape and eliminate nightmares through a relatively straightforward process akin to cognitive restructuring via the human imagery system. First, the patient is asked to select a nightmare, but for learning purposes the choice would not typically be one that causes a marked degree of distress. Second, and most commonly, guidance is not provided on how to change the disturbing content of the dream; the specific instruction developed by Joseph Neidhardt is “change the nightmare anyway you wish” (Neidhardt et al., 1992). In turn, this step creates a “new” or “different” dream, which may or may not be free of distressing elements. Our instructions, unequivocally, do not make a suggestion to the patient to make the dream less distressing or more positive or to do anything other than “change the nightmare anyway you wish.” Last, the patient is instructed to rehearse the “new dream” through imagery and to ignore the old nightmare.[10]

A nightmare arises from one's complex that contains residue from some unresolved issue.[5] Some people may experience recurring nightmares due to posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), or they may have some other source of anxiety that influences their dreams at night.[5] Whatever the cause, there are treatments available, some of them medical and some psychological. While most treatments are meant for people who have a true disorder, the techniques discussed above will work well for any person dealing with nightmares.[5]

See also


  1. American Psychiatric Association (2000), Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 4th ed, TR, p. 631
  2. 4.0 4.1 4.2 The Science Behind Dreams and Nightmares, Talk of the Nation, national Public Radio. 30 October 2007.
  3. 5.0 5.1 5.2 5.3 Coalson 1985, Web
  4. Halliday 1987
  5. ISBN 0-674-00690-9
  6. 10.0 10.1 , p. 234 Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "pmid19444882" defined multiple times with different content

Further reading

  • Anch, A. M., Browman, C.P., Mitler, M.M., & Walsh, J.K., Sleep: A scientific perspective (New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1988).
  • Harris J.C. (2004). Arch Gen Psychiatry. May;61(5):439-40. The Nightmare. (PMID 15123487)
  • Husser, J.-M. et A. Mouton (Éd.), Le Cauchemar dans les sociétés antiques. Actes des journées d'étude de l'UMR 7044 (15-16 Novembre 2007, Strasbourg) (Paris, De Boccard, 2010).
  • Jones, Ernest (1951). On the Nightmare (ISBN 0-87140-912-7) (pbk, 1971; ISBN 0-87140-248-3).
  • Forbes, D. et al. (2001) Brief Report: Treatment of Combat-Related Nightmares Using Imagery Rehearsal: A Pilot Study, Journal of Traumatic Stress 14 (2): 433-442
  • Siegel, A. (2003) A mini-course for clinicians and trauma workers on posttraumatic nightmares.
  • Burns, Sarah (2004). Painting the Dark Side : Art and the Gothic Imagination in Nineteenth-Century America. Ahmanson-Murphy Fine Are Imprint, 332 pp., University of California Press, ISBN 0-520-23821-4.hjhjhj* Davenport-Hines, Richard (1999). Gothic: Four Hundred Years of Excess, Horror, Evil and Ruin. North Point Press, p. 160-61.
  • Hill, Anne (2009). What To Do When Dreams Go Bad: A Practical Guide to Nightmares. Serpentine Media, 68 pp., ISBN 1-887590-04-8
  • Simons, Ronald C and Hughes, Charles C (eds.) (1985). Culture-Bound Syndromes. Springer, 536 pp.
  • Sagan, Carl (1997). The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark.
  • Coalson, Bob. "Nightmare help: Treatment of trauma survivors with PTSD." Psychotherapy: Theory, Research, Practice, Training 32.3 (1995): 381-388. PsycARTICLES. EBSCO. Web. 18 Mar. 2011.
  • Halliday, G. (1987). “Direct psychological therapies for nightmares: A review.” Clinical Psychology Review, 7, 501–523.
  • "Imagery Rehearsal Therapy (IRT)." The Encyclopedia of Trauma and Traumatic Stress Disorders. Ronald M. Doctor and Frank N. Shiromoto. New York: Facts on File, 2010. 148. Gale Virtual Reference Library. Web. 21 Feb. 2011.
  • Mayer, Mercer. There's a Nightmare in My Closet. [New York]: Puffin Pied Piper, 1976.
  • Moore, Bret A., and Barry Kraków. "Imagery rehearsal therapy: An emerging treatment for posttraumatic nightmares in veterans." Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy 2.3 (2010): 232-238. PsycARTICLES. EBSCO. Web. 18 Mar. 2011.

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