Bad Dreams: Why Do We Have Them

Bad Dreams: Why Do We Have Them

Bad Dreams


What Are Bad Dreams?

Dreaming is one of the most complicated and mysterious aspects of sleep. While dreams can include visions of grandeur and bliss, they can also be scary, threatening, or stressful. We’ve all had nightmares. In fact, you can probably still remember your worst bad dream. Nightmares, or bad dreams, are a type of dream that causes you to feel anxiety, fear, or terror. Not all negative dreams qualify as nightmares. To be nightmares, bad dreams need to be vivid experiences that make you feel sad or scared. Typically, a person will wake up during or just after having a nightmare and he or she will be able to remember all or part of the bad dream clearly. Both nightmares and dreams occur during the REM (rapid eye movement) cycle of sleep. People spend about 2 hours dreaming every night. Nightmares usually occur in the latter part of the REM cycle. Sometimes, nightmares can be more than just a bad dream. Both adults and children can experience bad dreams and nightmares. Causes of bad dreams include:

  • stress
  • fear
  • trauma
  • emotional issues
  • medication or drug use
  • illness


What Do Bad Dreams Mean?

What Do Bad Dreams Mean

Dreams are our brain’s way of organizing events of the day, memories, and images into vivid, symbolic, and nonsensical storylines. Nightmares in particular are dreams that are often connected to unresolved anxiety and trauma that our brain has not fully worked through. Indeed, studies suggest that nightmares are often linked to unmet psychological needs and/or frustration with life experiences. Yet those links aren’t always easy to make—except in cases of trauma (discussed below), our nightmares tend to reflect our troubles through metaphor rather than a literal representation. For example, a person who is dealing with a stressful move might not dream of the move itself, but about falling off the edge of a cliff or running late to an important event. Likewise, two people may experience similar nightmares (about, say, finding themselves naked in a public space) but for wildly different reasons. These variations can make it difficult to find a single, clear “meaning” behind our dreams.

Yet that hasn’t stopped people from trying. Several sources have theorized about the meanings of certain, common nightmares, and some of their conclusions are easy to get on board with. We can all understand why many researchers believe that dreams about being chased are directly linked to experiences of anxiety, or that dreams about being in an out-of-control vehicle reflect a lack of control in one’s life. Yet no two people’s minds or experiences are the same, so the best way to figure out why you keep dreaming about, say, being attacked by birds or getting lost in a maze, is to think it through yourself.

A nightmare is connected to and trying to help you with an unpleasant situation in your life. A recurring nightmare would likely be caused by either an ongoing difficult issue that is yet to be resolved or a recurring behavior pattern that leads to a recurring difficult issue.

Note that a trauma can be relived in a dream without references to the original trauma, but symbolic images may be used in the unconscious to reference the trauma.



Different Types of Bad Dreams

Nightmares come in thousands of different forms, and no two are entirely alike. When it comes to meanings, nightmares are often easier to analyze if you look at the key themes or events taking place.

Seeing the dead

  • Seeing the dead: When you first start experimenting with an interpretation of your dreams, you are likely to think that seeing the dead is about missing a specific person or fearing for your own safety. In some cases, your mind really is just trying to process your grief. At other times you might be struggling with an increased awareness of your own mortality. Dream specialists say that seeing dead people in your dreams can indicate a general difficulty with letting something go. So, if there is no particularly emotionally evocative content to your dream, think instead about something from which you might be afraid to move on.
  • Teeth falling out: Dreams about losing your teeth are a good example. A shockingly large number of people have had at least one nightmare in which their teeth began to fall out or were forcibly removed. Most of the research around this type of dream suggests that it relates to some type of underlying insecurity or anxiety. Or, maybe, you’re feeling like you’re falling short of expectations in some important part of your life. On the other hand, nightmares about losing teeth can also be linked to insecurities about physical appearance.

Partner leaving

  • Partner leaving: If you’re in a generally happy relationship, the idea of your partner leaving might be one of the very worst things you imagine. If you’re not in a relationship but you dream that you are with a partner and are subsequently left, this can indicate that you’re anxious about the possibility of never meeting the right person.
  • Getting injured: There are lots of different ways you can be wounded in a dream. Your nightmare might involve anything from a painful cut to a disfiguring accident or major burns. In all cases, the prevailing theory is that dreams about injuries are usually connected to feeling weak or powerless in some aspect of your life.
  • Being trapped: If you have a phobia of being trapped, you’re not alone. As well as being a common fear, this is also a frequent nightmare for many people, and it can mean a variety of different things. Sometimes, it merely reflects your phobia, in the same way, that dreaming of spiders might relate to your irrational fear of these insects. That being said, nightmares about being physically trapped can also be a sign that you feel psychologically trapped in some way.

You’re falling

  • Falling: Just as dreaming about flying is one of the most commonly reported positive dreams, many people experience awful nightmares about falling. Whether you fall down from something, fall out of a plane or just find yourself falling with no explanation, you can wake up with a racing heart and a deep feeling of helplessness. Often, the sources of these nightmares will be a degree of anxiety you feel in your waking life; worries about being out of control in some way, with an underlying feeling that a negative outcome is inevitable.
  • Being chased or attacked: You might be running from monsters, hurt by people you know, or in peril due to the actions of strangers. In all such cases, the underlying theme is most likely to be fear; often of confrontation, and what it could mean. When you’re being chased, what this tells you is that you’re trying to evade conflict, but that deep down you know it’s likely something you have to face. The key is to face it on your own terms and to give some serious thought to the main points you want to make to the other person.

What Do Chasing Dreams Mean?

  • Nudity: The classic nudity dream involves suddenly finding yourself naked in front of your old high school class, or during a work presentation. This is a nightmare that can sound funny in the abstract, but when experienced, is very humiliating and degrading. The message from these sorts of dreams is that you’re afraid of being judged. And if you have this nightmare regularly, it could be that fear of judgment is actually holding you back.
  • Missing important events: Finally, missing important events is a common nightmare fuel. Regardless of what the event is, the nightmare will likely revolve around you feeling stressed, mortified, and sad. Unsurprisingly, the theme here is about expectations and your worries that you might not be able to live up to some such expectations.


What is the Most Common Bad Dream?

A survey conducted by Amerisleep, showed that nightmares about falling were followed closely by dreams about being chased (more than 63 percent). Other distressing nightmares included death (roughly 55 percent), feeling lost (almost 54 percent), feeling trapped (52 percent), and being attacked (nearly 50 percent). While not as common, dreams focusing on poor performance – whether at school or work – sustaining an injury, and drowning also made an appearance on the list.


What Makes You Have Bad Dreams?

What Makes You Have Bad Dreams

Scientists know very little about nightmares and dreams. However, there are many theories about what causes a nightmare. One theory has to do with the anatomy and physiology of the brain. REM sleep stimulates regions in the brain that are used for learning. During REM sleep, the brain fires various signals at random. The cortex (the part of the brain that interprets and organizes information) attempts to make sense of these random signals by turning them into a “story” or dream. If this theory is correct, then nightmares and dreams have no deeper meaning. They are simply a side effect of deep sleep. Some psychologists, including Sigmund Freud, believe that dreams come from a person’s unconscious mind and represent his or her secret fears and desires. Only during sleep, when the conscious mind is silent, do these repressed emotions come to the surface and manifest themselves as nightmares and dreams. This theory implies that all dreams are significant and that they all have some sort of underlying meaning. To find out what that meaning is, you must interpret your dream. Nightmares can also be a symptom of post-traumatic stress disorder or emotional trauma. Similarly, stress and anxiety are common causes of bad dreams. Other common causes of nightmares are entirely physical. They are simply part of the body’s response to certain physiological conditions. There is also a theory that some people may have a genetic predisposition to nightmares. In other words, nightmares may run in your family.


How Do I Stop Having Bad Dreams?

  • White noise: White noise can bring pleasant memories to a person. Examples of white noises are the ocean breeze, raindrops, and crickets chirping in the night. These white noises can evoke a peaceful state of mind conducive to sleeping.
  • Don’t watch or read something scary before sleeping: A lot of people have a habit of watching scary movies right before going to bed. This behavior causes a lot of individuals to experience nightmares during their sleep.
  • Making sense of your dream: Whether it’s a snake or a monster chasing someone, a person should at least try to make sense of his or her dream. This activity is comparable to that of a self-assessment which is helpful for a person to understand their stress. Knowing something about a dream or nightmare can significantly help a person identify any “real-life” stressors that they can easily modify to prevent restless nights.


  • Medications:Sometimes a person can overlook the medications he or she takes. Drugs and other substances can have psychedelic effects on a person which can significantly influence his or her dreams at night.
  • Seeking professional help:A nightmare can significantly affect a person once it gets out of hand. The effects can be so debilitating that straightforward and everyday tasks can otherwise become impossible tasks. Seeking professional help is therefore important.

Bad dreams can be pretty unnerving, however with changes in lifestyle and trying to know the meaning of our dreams, we can definitely get some help. Hopefully, this article gave you some insight into bad dreams.

Dream reading and analysis can go a long way in healing from the aftermath of bad dreams. PATRICIA ELTINGE in the book THE DREAM CLASS, sensitively and intelligently deals with various different types of dreams and how to learn to read dreams in a better way.

Credits © 2024 Patricia Eltinge .All photos by Patricia Eltinge.