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Why do we experience nightmares?

5% of all adults have nightmares at least once a week

ATLANTA — There’s nothing worse than a nightmare that jars you from a good night’s sleep and keeps you awake wondering “why?”

According to Dr. Pablo Castillo, a neurologist specializing in sleep medicine with the Mayo Clinic, 5% of all adults have nightmares once a week. About one-third of all people experience a nightmare sometime during their childhood.


Nightmare are any dreams that we find frightening or disturbing.

“Nightmares are a REM sleep phenomena and often occur in the second half of the night,” says Dr. Castillo.

Sleep experts tell us there are two kinds of nightmares.

They could be post traumatic.

“Post traumatic nightmares are those that occur related to a prior traumatic experience,” says Dr. Scott Leibowitz, Medical Director of Sleep Medicine at Northside Hospital.

Most of us experience spontaneous nightmares that are much more difficult to explain.

“It is likely that some dreams have great significance and meaning, while other dreams are not particularly important but rather are a byproduct of one’s brain creating content for the dreaming state,” says Dr. Leibowitz.  

Dr. Leibowitz says nightmares could be therapeutic. They’re the brain’s effort to resolve stress, emotional conflict, or trauma.

There are medications that cause nightmares.

Patients taking high doses of a medicine that helps with Parkinson’s have experienced vivid nightmares.

One therapist suggests writing about your nightmare, or better yet, re-writing it to have a more pleasant ending. Studies have shown writing about worries and fears can help resolve them and could lead to peaceful, nightmare-free sleep.



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