“I Have Frequent Nightmares; Should I Be Concerned?”
Dreams and nightmares are a mysterious part of our sleep patterns and the subconscious mind. Scientists are still trying to reach a consensus on why we dream at all. However, some believe that dreams may help us process our emotions that we experience during the day.
Unfortunately, many veterans who return home with a disability or service related trauma, (especially those who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder) experience frequent nightmares which can negatively affect their sleep cycles. Poor sleep can even contribute to changes in a veteran’s behavior in the workplace and their relationships with friends, family, and loved ones.
In this article, we’ll go over the common causes of frequent nightmares, how they can affect your health, and what you can do about them.
What Causes Frequent Nightmares?
Some people wonder what their recurring nightmares mean and many believe that their nightmares are symbolic of something happening in their lives.
While this may seem to be the case at times, more often than not your dreams are just your brain processing your experiences and emotions from earlier in the day.
Although we may not know the exact cause of dreams and nightmares, some findings suggest the following factors are common causes of frequent nightmares:
Anxiety and stress: Research suggests nightmares are simply one of your brain’s coping mechanisms for dealing with its daily stressors, and the more severe, pervasive, or persistent the stress or trauma, the more likely the nightmares are to occur. As a result, those who suffer from chronic stress or anxiety disorders may experience frequent or recurring nightmares as one of their symptoms.
Mental health conditions and disorders: Due in large part to the reason above, patients with conditions like PTSD, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and depression can suffer from nightmares. PTSD in particular can significantly increase one’s risk of recurring nightmares—one study found that 71-96% of those who suffer from the disorder have frequent nightmares.
Sleep deprivation: Insomnia, sleep apnea, narcolepsy, sleep-related movement disorders (like restless leg syndrome), and other conditions that disrupt sleep can make it difficult to get adequate rest. When these problems persist or go untreated, the subsequent sleep deprivation may result in frightening or stressful dreams, exacerbating sleep deprivation.
Medications and substance use: Some medications like antidepressants and blood thinners come with nightmares as a potential side effect, even when taken as prescribed. Additionally, abusing substances such as narcotics, amphetamines, or alcohol can also lead to nightmares. Worse still, withdrawal symptoms from these drugs and medications can cause them, too.
Eating too close to bedtime: While there isn’t much empirical evidence behind this idea, there is a fair amount of anecdotal evidence, including one study that surveyed students to analyze the perceived effects of eating right before bed. Surveyed students did notice a relationship between their nighttime diet and an increase in nightmares, most often blaming dairy products, junk food, and sugary foods as the culprit.
Can Frequent Nightmares Affect My Health?
What do recurring nightmares mean for your health? If your frequent nightmares persist for a long time, you may develop a nightmare disorder. If it gets to that point, these disorders can have adverse effects on your health. Some symptoms of a nightmare disorder include:
- Daytime and bedtime anxiety
- Daytime fatigue
- Memory and concentration problems
At the simplest level, though, nightmares typically result in sleeping less, and reduce the quality of restful sleep overall. The effects of sleep deprivation are well documented, and they include increased risks for obesity, dementia, heart disease, and diabetes.
What Can I Do to Manage My Frequent Nightmares?
The solution to your nightmares may not always be cut-and-dry—veterans who return home from active duty with PTSD, for example, may need a professional’s help to assist in reducing their nightmares. However, some home remedies that may help you manage your recurring nightmares are as follows:
Reduce your stressors: If you have reason to believe your nightmares are bred from your daily stress levels, do what you can to eliminate stressors, and practice healthy coping techniques to properly handle the ones you can’t. These techniques include relaxation methods such as deep breathing or meditation.
Create a sleep schedule and stick to it. The best way to ensure an adequate amount of sleep each night is to go to bed and wake up at the same time every day—even on the weekends. Choose times that work for you and stick to them.
Watch what you eat and drink: Using stimulants like cigarettes, coffee, and caffeinated drinks too late in the evening can make it difficult to get restful sleep. Additionally, drinking alcohol too close to bedtime can negatively affect sleep cycles and lead to restless sleep.
Stay off of your phone before bed: While the effect of “blue light” on sleep rhythms are mostly inconclusive , using a phone, tablet, or laptop does keep the brain active, and the constant stimulation can keep a person engaged and awake well into the night.
Talk to someone about your worrisome thoughts: As studies suggest that dreams and nightmares are a way to process information and emotions, it may help to talk about your worrisome thoughts with a licensed therapist, or someone you trust, and try to process those complicated feelings more actively during waking hours.
When Should I See a Doctor?
You should see a doctor about your frequent nightmares if they impact your ability to get restful sleep. You should also see a doctor if your nightmares start to affect your personal or professional life, especially if it makes you feel less productive at work, more anxious or depressed, or more distant from friends and loved ones.
If you suffer from PTSD, chronic depression, or another mental health disorder that may contribute to your frequent nightmares, seek help from a professional. A mental health professional will help you talk through your anxieties and thoughts and get you the treatment you need to better control your disorder.
How Can Telemedica Help?
For veterans suffering recurring nightmares due to service-connected mental illness, Telemedica can provide a one-time mental health evaluation which can identify how your mental illness may be affecting your daily life. This medical evidence can help you obtain the VA benefits you deserve and the support and resources you need.