5 Signs Your Frequent Bad Dreams May Actually Be A Nightmare Disorder

by Carina Wolff

We all have bad dreams occasionally, but if you suffer from frequent, debilitating nightmares, it may be possible that you have nightmare disorder, sometimes called dream anxiety disorder. If you have disturbing dreams that leave you anxious during the day and fearful of sleep, you may be showing signs of nightmare disorder. Although it is somewhat rare, nightmare disorders can have lasting mental and physical effects, and it's worth looking into treating if you experience nightmares on a regular basis.

"Most people experience nightmares throughout life, usually very rarely," sleep doctor Michael Breus, PhD, tells Bustle. "A small percentage of the population — studies suggest around five percent — have nightmares as often as once a week. Nightmares can result from a number of different triggers, including stress, emotional upheaval, and traumatic experiences... According to research, nightmares may contribute to insomnia, daytime fatigue, depression, and anxiety."

Although nightmares can occur as a result of other mental health issues, nightmare disorder is a condition of recurring nightmares that occur separately from substance abuse, PTSD, or any other medical condition. And if your frequent bad dreams are interfering with sleep, it may be best to talk to your doctor. Here are five signs that your frequent bad dreams may actually be nightmare disorder.


It Affects You During The Day

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One major characteristic of nightmare disorder is that its effects last beyond the night and carry into the day. This can cause distress or impairment during the day, including anxiety, fear, and problems with concentration or memory, according to Mayo Clinic. "Unlike sleep terrors, people with nightmare disorder tend to actually remember their dreams and will awake with a memory of them," psychiatrist and sleep medicine doctor Alex Dimitriu, MD, tells Bustle. "Because we get more REM sleep towards the morning hours, people will often report waking with nightmares in the second, or morning half of the night."


You Experience Anxiety As A Result


Nightmare disorder involves disruption of your quality of life, especially when it leads to the development of anxiety due to nightmares. "For example, if someone experiences a nightmare and then is unable to sleep for a long period of time afterwards, which leads to daytime dysfunction, it is considered a problem," Dr. Sujay Kansagra, Mattress Firm’s sleep health expert, tells Bustle. "If nightmares make someone particularly anxious about falling asleep and it leads to anxiety after experiencing the nightmare, this is where the nightmares become a disorder."


You Fear Going To Sleep At Night


Because frequent nightmares cause regular distress, people with nightmare disorder often fear going to bed at night or fear going back to sleep once they have been awakened by something upsetting. "Nightmares themselves contribute to disrupted sleep not only by waking the sleeper, but also because they can lead to a fear of falling asleep and returning to a disturbing dream," Dr. Breus says.


You Have Nightmares At Least Once A Week

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Bad dreams happen to everyone, but the frequency of these harrowing dreams is what makes a difference when it comes to the disorder. "Nightmare disorder is a condition of recurring nightmares that occur at least once weekly, for a period of time of one to six months," Dr. Dimitriu says. Nightmares are also more common when you're young. They typically begin in children between three and six years old and tend to decrease after the age of 10. But in some cases, nightmares persist throughout adulthood.


You Experience Moodiness & Fatigue

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Nightmare disorder can cause fatigue from lack of sleep and distress, and it can worsen other mental health issues, making the disorder more debilitating. However, the relationship between nightmares and mental health disorders such as depression is complex. "Depression is linked to a greater incidence of nightmares, and nightmares themselves may contribute to worsening depression," Dr. Breus says.

Occasional nightmares aren't cause for concern, but if you experience nightmares frequently that cause distress and affect your quality of life, you may have nightmare disorder. Speak with your doctor if you experience these signs, and they can help you find the best route for treatment.