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File:John Henry Fuseli - The Nightmare.JPG

The Nightmare, (1781) (Detroit Institute of Art). The canvas portraying the Incubus sitting on the woman experiencing the nightmare.

A nightmare is a dream that can cause a strong negative emotional response from the sleeper, typically fear and/or horror. The dream may contain situations of danger, discomfort, psychological or physical terror. Sufferers usually awaken in a state of distress and may be unable to return to sleep for a prolonged period of time.[1]


Nightmares can have physical causes such as sleeping in an uncomfortable or awkward position, having a fever, or psychological causes such as stress and anxiety. Eating before bed, which triggers an increase in the body's metabolism and brain activity, is a potential stimulus for nightmares.[2]

Occasional nightmares are commonplace, but recurrent nightmares can interfere with sleeping patterns and cause insomnia that may require medical help. Recurring post-traumatic stress disorder nightmares in which real traumas are re-experienced respond best to a technique called imagery rehearsal. First described in the 1996 book Trauma and Dreams[3] by Harvard psychologist Deirdre Barrett, imagery rehearsal therapy involves the dreamer coming up with an alternate, mastery outcome to the nightmare, mentally rehearsing that outcome awake, and then reminding themselves at bedtime that they wish this alternate outcome should the nightmare recur. Research has found that this technique not only reduces the occurrence of nightmares and insomnia,[4] but also improves other daytime PTSD symptoms.[5]

Medical investigation

Studies of dreams have found that about three quarters of dream content or emotions are negative.[6]

One definition of "nightmare" is a dream which causes one to wake up in the middle of the sleep cycle and experience a negative emotion, such as fear. This type of event occurs on average once per month. They are not common in children under 5, but they are more common in young children (25% experiencing a nightmare at least once per week), most common in adolescents, and less common in adults (dropping in frequency about one third from age 25 to 55).[6]

Fearfulness in waking life is correlated with the incidence of nightmares.[6]

Screaming is also a common feature of nightmares, more often than crying or moaning. The whole situation of screaming or crying can happen from 5 to 20 minutes

See also


  • False awakening
  • Hag in folklore
  • Lucid dream
  • Mare (folklore)
  • Mora (mythology)
  • Moroi (folklore)
  • Night terror
  • Nightmare disorder
  • Nocnitsa
  • Sleep disorder
  • Sleep paralysis


  1. American Psychiatric Association (2000), Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 4th ed, TR, p. 631
  2. Stephens, Laura (2006). "Nightmares". http://web.archive.org/web/20070831193305/http://www.psychologytoday.com/conditions/nightmare.html.
  3. Barrett, Deirdre. (Ed.) Trauma and Dreams. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1996.
  4. Davis JL, Wright DC (2005). "Case series utilizing exposure, relaxation, and rescripting therapy: impact on nightmares, sleep quality, and psychological distress". Behavioral sleep medicine 3 (3): 151–7. doi:10.1207/s15402010bsm0303_3. PMID 15984916.
  5. Krakow B, Hollifield M, Johnston L, et al. (2001). "Imagery rehearsal therapy for chronic nightmares in sexual assault survivors with post traumatic stress disorder: a randomized controlled trial". JAMA 286 (5): 537–45. doi:10.1001/jama.286.5.537. PMID 11476655.
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 The Science Behind Dreams and Nightmares, Talk of the Nation, national Public Radio. 30 October 2007.
  • Anch, A.M., & Browman, C.P., & Mitler, M.M., & Walsh, J.K. (1988). Sleep: A scientific perspective. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc.
  • Harris J.C. (2004). Arch Gen Psychiatry. May;61(5):439-40. The Nightmare. (PMID 15123487)
  • Jones, Ernest (1951). On the Nightmare (ISBN 0-87140-912-7) (pbk, 1971; ISBN 0-87140-248-3).
  • Forbes, D. et al. (2001) Brief Report: Treatment of Combat-Related Nightmares Using Imagery Rehearsal: A Pilot Study, Journal of Traumatic Stress 14 (2): 433-442
  • Siegel, A. (2003) A mini-course for clinicians and trauma workers on posttraumatic nightmares.
  • Burns, Sarah (2004). Painting the Dark Side : Art and the Gothic Imagination in Nineteenth-Century America. Ahmanson-Murphy Fine Are Imprint, 332 pp., University of California Press, ISBN 0-520-23821-4.
  • Davenport-Hines, Richard (1999). Gothic: Four Hundred Years of Excess, Horror, Evil and Ruin. North Point Press, p. 160-61.
  • Hill, Anne (2009). What To Do When Dreams Go Bad: A Practical Guide to Nightmares. Serpentine Media, 68 pp., ISBN 1-88759-004-8
  • Simons, Ronald C and Hughes, Charles C (eds.) (1985). Culture-Bound Syndromes. Springer, 536 pp.
  • Sagan, Carl (1997). The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark.

External links


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