What Is Nightmare Disorder?

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  • Written By: Christina Whyte
  • Edited By: Allegra J. Lingo
  • Last Modified Date: 04 November 2019
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Nightmare disorder, formerly known as Dream Anxiety Disorder, is a psychological condition that involves frequent, intensely frightening dreams that wake the sleeper up and significantly and negatively affect the person's life. For a diagnosis, the nightmares must not be caused by some other medical or psychological condition and must not occur as a side effect of a medication. Nightmare disorder is one of several sleep disorders that a person can suffer from, and there are important differences between this condition and normal nightmares and other sleep disorders. There are a number of treatments that can be tried for this condition, but there is no definite cure.

Unwanted events that occur along with sleep, such as nightmares, sleep walking, and sleep paralysis, are called parasomnias. What differentiates nightmare disorder from the other parasomnias is that when the sleeper wakes up, he or she is instantly and completely awake, aware of his or her surroundings, and recalls the dream in detail. The other parasomnias involve confusion, disorientation, or difficulty waking up completely.

Almost everyone has nightmares on occasion. What makes nightmare disorder different is the persistence, frequency, and impact on daily life of the nightmares. He or she may fear going to sleep, avoid sleeping, and suffer from sleep deprivation and anxiety about sleeping. This state of mind makes it difficult to concentrate and perform activities like schoolwork or job duties.


It is unknown how many people have nightmare disorder because people rarely seek treatment for it. Children are generally more likely to have nightmares than adults, but this difference could partially be because children are more likely to tell people about nightmares. Women are also more likely to have nightmares than men, or perhaps more likely to report nightmares. It is thought that imaginative, creative, sensitive people are more likely to have nightmares, but there is not very much research on the cause of nightmares.

Nightmare disorder does not have a standard treatment. Psychological counseling may help to address underlying issues or themes in the nightmares, such as fear of failure or coping with loss. Relaxation techniques, such as meditation, yoga, and making life changes to lower stress, can also help because nightmares are thought to be stress-related. Keeping a journal of when nightmares occur and any precipitating events is also helpful to determine if there is a pattern to the nightmares.


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