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Nightmares in Adults

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When you wake up terrified from a disturbing nightmare, you might think you're the only adult who has them. After all, aren't adults supposed to outgrow nightmares?

While it's true nightmares are more common among children, one out of every two adults has nightmares on occasion. And between 2% and 8% of the adult population is plagued by nightmares.

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Are your nightmares causing you significant distress? Are they interrupting your sleep on a regular basis? If so, it's important to determine what's causing your adult nightmares. Then you can make changes to reduce their occurrence.

What Are Nightmares?

Nightmares are vividly realistic, disturbing dreams that rattle you awake from a deep sleep. They often set your heart pounding from fear. Nightmares tend to occur most often during rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, when most dreaming takes place. Because periods of REM sleep become progressively longer as the night progresses, you may find you experience nightmares most often in the early morning hours.

The subjects of nightmares vary from person to person. There are, though, some common nightmares that many people experience. For example, a lot of adults have nightmares about not being able to run fast enough to escape danger or about falling from a great height. If you've gone through a traumatic event, such as an attack or accident, you may have recurrent nightmares about your experience.

Although nightmares and night terrors both cause people to awake in great fear, they are different. Night terrors typically occur in the first few hours after falling asleep. They are experienced as feelings, not dreams, so people do not recall why they are terrified upon awakening.

What Causes Nightmares in Adults?

Nightmares in adults are often spontaneous. But they can also be caused by a variety of factors and underlying disorders.

Some people have nightmares after having a late-night snack, which can increase metabolism and signal the brain to be more active. A number of medications also are known to contribute to nightmare frequency. Drugs that act on chemicals in the brain, such as antidepressants and narcotics, are often associated with nightmares. Non-psychological medications, including some blood pressure medications, can also cause nightmares in adults.

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