As an adult, the occasional nightmare is totally normal; we all have dreams that give us the chills every once in a while. But if you consistently find yourself jolting awake, movie-style, from dreams about puppies biting your face off and desperately avoiding one-eyed serial killers, it could be a sign of nightmare disorder — a sleep disorder that’s exactly as much fun as it sounds. For whatever reason, nightmares tend to be far more common in children than adults; by the time adulthood is reached, most people are able to sleep through the night without fear of, well, fear. This isn’t to say that adults don’t get nightmares, but most bad dreams can be traced to outside causes: Stress, traumatic events, other psychological disorders, and so on.
However, that isn’t always the case. Formerly known as dream anxiety disorder, nightmare disorder is characterized by frequent, recurring dreams that evoke negative emotions and disrupt sleep. People with nightmare disorder are able to recall the content of their dreams, often in vivid detail, and unlike those who suffer from sleep terrors, they’re rarely disoriented when they wake up. Unfortunately, this is both a blessing and a curse — would you want to clearly remember all your bad dreams? — and according to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, these nightmares may prevent someone from falling back asleep once they’ve woken up.
This may sound familiar, but as with most psychological disorders, the difference between having nightmares and having nightmare disorder is the distress it causes. That being said, bad dreams aren’t necessarily something to fear once you wake up. According to Dr. Carder Stout, an LA-based depth psychologist, they can provide peeks into your mental state. “Nightmares are actually some of the most informative dreams we have. Don’t be afraid of them. They are meant to help,” he wrote to Bustle over email. As he explained, nightmares are simply indications that your mental state is a little off.
“They are deliberate knocks on the door letting us know that something is out [o]f balance in our psyche. … Nightmares are full of valuable information and serve to help us recalibrate our lives,” he wrote.
In short, the occasional bad dream is totally normal — it might even be a good thing. On the other hand, people with nightmare disorder experience these dreams at least once a week, and that can take a toll over time. Let’s take a look at five signs of nightmare disorder below.
1. Your Dreams Are Vivid (And Disturbing)
People with nightmare disorder remember their dreams in great detail — and more importantly, the content of their dreams is disturbing. Nightmares don’t always have to involve running away from one-eyed axe murderers; sometimes dreams may be perfectly innocent save for the inescapable feeling of dread. If a dream elicits negative feelings like disgust, sadness, anger, or anxiety, it’s a nightmare.
2. Nightmares Wake You Up
According to the American Sleep Association, nightmares usually occur during the final stage of sleep known as the REM cycle, although it’s not unheard of for dreamers to immediately slip into a bad dream, especially if they’re worried about something in particular. However, bad dreams tend to occur during the latter half of sleep, and Psych Central reports that nightmares usually wake up the dreamer.
3. You Can’t Get Back To Sleep
As discussed above, people with nightmare disorder are often unable to get back to sleep once they’ve been awakened by a nightmare. Over time, this can contribute to serious sleep deprivation.
4. You Have Nightmares Frequently
According to the latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM), one of the most important criteria for nightmare disorder is its frequency. People with nightmare disorder must experience an episode at least once a week, although they may occur nightly in severe cases.
5. You’re Exhausted As A Result
Finally, nightmare disorder is disruptive and impairs your daily functioning — after all, that’s what makes it a disorder rather than just a bad night. If your nightmares are so realistic and disturbing that your waking life is suffering as a result, you may want to talk to your doctor.