Why you keep having the same nightmares over and over again

Nightmares are often based in fear, but sometimes, even guilt. Getty Images

Whether it’s your teeth coming loose one by one or getting chased by a vicious creature, most of us have nightmares that have haunted us for years.

Dreams and nightmares are often involved in our brain’s memory consolidation process, says Leslie Ellis, a registered clinical counsellor based in North Vancouver.

“Dreams give us the greatest emotional intensity,” she tells Global News. “That’s how our memories are chosen, what’s remembered and what’s forgotten. This is why dreams can be intense.”

But nightmares aren’t always about intense fears. One 2014 study from the Université de Montréal found people also felt sadness, confusion, guilt or disgust.

“Nightmares are not a disease in themselves but can be a problem for the individual who anticipates them or who is greatly distressed by their nightmares. People who have frequent nightmares may fear falling asleep — and being plunged into their worst dreams. Some nightmares are repeated every night. People who are awakened by their nightmares cannot get back to sleep, which creates artificial insomnia,” researchers said in the study. 

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Some nightmares are more common than others

Author and radio host Diane Brandon, who has interpreted dreams for more than 40 years, gave insight into some of the most common nightmares to Business Insider in 2012.

The list includes everything from drowning to being naked in public to failing a test. Another common nightmare is falling, and Brandon said this one often causes people to suddenly wake up.

“Nightmares of falling could reflect a fear of heights, a fear of not being in control, a feeling of having nothing solid to hold onto in life, or even a fear of death,” she told the news site.

Ellis calls these classic anxiety nightmares and they often happen when people are worried about something.

Nightmares can be more common for children

Dr. Jillian Roberts, child psychologist and associate professor of educational psychology at the University of Victoria, says nightmares are more common in children because their minds aren’t fully developed.

When a new event is experienced, the child needs to process it and make sense of it. Much of this processing happens during our dreams,” she tells Global News.

When a child experiences something traumatic, watches a scary movie or even gets frightened at an amusement park, their mind often tries to process it, she says.

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Gently encourage your child to explain what was happening in the nightmare. Do not intensify fears, but rather push back at them. Make them smaller, and make them seem completely unrealistic,” she says.

Other causes of nightmares

For adults, recurring nightmares can also be a sign of mental illness, like PTSD, explains Roberts.

“Nightmares can also be the psyche trying to get us to pay attention to something, which may or may not be traumatic.”

Ellis says people with PTSD can have the same nightmares for years, sometimes for even 10 to 20 years. And even if the nightmares begin to fade, they could be triggered again by something on television that reminds them of the traumatic event.

The Mayo Clinic adds other common causes of nightmares can include substance abuse, daily stress and certain medications like antidepressants. 

When to seek help

Nightmares from time to time are one thing, but if you find yourself having the same one over and over again, Ellis says you should contact a medical expert for help.

“When it starts to disrupt your life and you are not functioning well, or if it is causing you distress and you can’t live a normal life.”

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She adds anything that disrupts your sleep can further impact your mood and ability to function during the day.

In her line of work specifically, she says with counselling, (although all individuals are different), most patients end up never having the same nightmare again.

“It doesn’t take very long to shift the nightmare,” she says.