What is a nightmare?

A nightmare is an extremely anxious dream which can cause a strong emotional response from the mind. Common themes in nightmares include persecution, rejection, extreme shame and death. You can also have nightmares about annoying events from the past. The dreamer often wakes up in the middle of night because of a nightmare and feels restless, anxious or sad. A raised heartbeat and a sweaty body are common symptoms.

Why do we have nightmares?

Sleeping not only has the function of resting, but is also intended to process information and emotions. During your sleep your brain runs at full speed and new connections are made in a part of the brain called the hippocampus. This part of the brain is connected to your memory. During a dream all memories and emotions are ‘stored’. Strong and recent memories and emotions from the real world will therefore also be more present in your dream. Nightmares are actually the processing of negative emotions in combination with negatively charged images that have been randomly picked from your memory. To be able to process those negative emotions, they will have to be activated during your sleep. This is why, for example, you can feel very anxious during and after a nightmare.

What causes nightmares?

Nightmares have no clear cause, but can often be related to unpleasant events, negative emotions, disturbed sleep patterns and stress. Occasional nightmares are normal and are part of human information processing. When you experience nightmares more occasionally, there is often more going on. In such cases, nightmares have become than ‘information processing’ only. People often fall into a repeating pattern due to persistent stress. Sleep quality is reduced by frequent nightmares. As a result, you function less well during the day and you can feel restless and irritable, which in turn leads to more stress. It is also possible that having frequent nightmares is a sign of a mental disorder such as a post-traumatic stress disorder. In such cases, the repeated nightmares are often related to the trauma.

What can you do about persistent nightmares?

  • Try to sleep relaxed and stress-free by doing relaxation exercises before you go to bed. This way you are not only relaxing your body, but you are also clearing your mind of stressful thoughts and negative emotions.
  • Add structure to your sleep pattern by going to bed and waking up at set times. If you are constantly going to bed and waking up at different times, your body cannot get used to it and this keeps stress going.
  • Maintain a healthy lifestyle. In addition to a good night’s rest, good nutrition and sufficient exercise are important basic elements. If you take good care of your body, you will experience less stress.

If you want to read more about improving your night’s sleep, you can find more tips on this page! Do you want to know more about why a healthy lifestyle is so important? Read this blog!


Try adding some structure to your sleep pattern by scheduling a fixed bed time and a time to wake up in the morning every day in the NiceDay app.

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Wouter Schippers

Hey, I am Wouter. I'm a NiceDay coach and psychologist. I like to play football and to make electronic music.

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