A-Z Health Topics

Return to Index
by Ehmann LC

Running Scared: It Won't Stop Your Nightmares

IMAGE "I've been having the same dream as long as I can remember. I'm walking down a busy city street at midday. All of a sudden, the sun disappears and I'm all alone. I can't see anyone, but I know someone's following me. I try to run, but my feet stick to the ground. I try to scream, but nothing comes out. I'm helpless and terrified."

A Distressing Dream

A nightmare is a very distressing or frightening dream that usually forces at least partial awakening. The dreamer may feel any number of other disturbing emotions in a nightmare, such as anger, guilt, sadness, or depression, but the most common feelings are fear and anxiety. Nightmare themes vary widely from person to person.

Nightmares and Night Terrors

Nightmares are different from night terrors.
  • Nightmares tend to occur late in the sleep cycle and are usually not accompanied by screaming or moving. The dream may be elaborate and intense, and the dreamer realizes soon after waking that it was a dream.
  • Night terrors on the other hand, occur during deep sleep and may be accompanied by loud screaming and thrashing about. The sleeper is hard to awaken and may not remember much more than an overwhelming feeling or a single scene. Children who have night terrors also have a tendency to sleepwalk and/or wet their beds.

Your Very Own Nightmare

In previous times, nightmares were considered to be signs of devil or demon possession, or a mark of evil. Despite their bad reputation, nightmares are no different from other dreams. In fact, what constitutes a nightmare varies from person to person and from dream to dream. The meaning of dreams is largely symbolic and contextual, so what's frightening for one person can be harmless—or even funny—for another.

A Sign of Anxiety

Nightmares are just long, anxiety-provoking dreams, but chemically and neurologically are no different than more pleasant dreams.
Anxiety themes represent one of the largest categories of dreams. Some examples include exploding buildings, being chased by unseen evil, and showing up at school unprepared for an exam. Anxiety nightmares may be messages from your unconscious regarding some unresolved conflict or trauma in your waking life.

A Chance for Resolution

Unresolved emotional issues in the conscious life—even dating back to childhood—can result in dreams. By trying to decode the messages in your nightmare, you may uncover areas in your conscious life that may need attention. When an issue is worked out and understood, it is less likely to show up in your nightmares.

Ways to Find Meaning

There are several ways people can work out the meaning of their nightmares.

Keeping a Dream Log

Consider keeping a dream log and record each night's episodes. Keep a notebook and pen next to your bed. As soon as you wake, ask yourself what you were just thinking about. By staying as close to your dream state as possible, you'll more easily recall your thoughts. Write them down for later examination.

Helping Children Understand Dreams

It's a bit more challenging helping children deal with their nightmares. With appropriate encouragement, many young children are able to discuss their nightmares with their parents and will generally not require any other intervention. If a child is suffering from recurrent or disturbing nightmares, a therapist's expertise may be required. The therapist may have the child draw the nightmare, talk with the frightening characters, or fantasize changes in the nightmare to help the child feel safer and less frightened.

Using Dream Analysis Books

Though you can turn to experts for assistance in interpreting your images, another strategy is to work on decoding the symbols yourself. Look for books that give suggestions regarding the general themes of dreams, rather than those that claim to be the definitive guide to dream analysis. These books often interpret specific dreams but only as examples; your own meaning for an identical dream would likely differ greatly.

Getting Personal

Although there are certain universal symbols and themes, dreams and nightmares are extremely personal. You'll need to take actions and objects in your dream in context, rather than at face value, examining what meaning different situations hold and what kinds of emotions they bring up for you.


National Sleep Foundation
Night Terrors Resource Center


Better Sleep Council Canada
Canadian Sleep Society


Common questions about nightmares. International Association for the Study of Dreams website. Available at: http://www.asdreams.org/nightmare-faq. Accessed October 5, 2017.
Nightmares and night terrors. Family Doctor—American Academy of Family Physicians website. Available at: https://familydoctor.org/condition/nightmares-and-night-terrors. Updated April 2014. Accessed October 5, 2017.
Night terrors. EBSCO DynaMed Plus website. Available at: http://www.dynamed.com/topics/dmp~AN~T114855/Night-terrors. Updated June 7, 2017. Accessed October 5, 2017.

Revision Information