Food & Fitness

A Sleep Disorder You Might Not Know About

Have you heard of nightmare disorder? Until recently, I had no idea that such a thing existed (although, to be fair, there seems to be a label for just about ANY kind of disorder / ailment / feeling that we get. But that’s a whole other topic for discussion).

I’ve had nightmares and vivid / bad dreams for as long as I can remember. They started as a child, and then…. they just never went away. So I’ve spent much of my life dealing with the frustrations of having terrifying, or at the very least incredibly realistic, dreams, as well as chronic insomnia.* It’s especially irritating when the nightmares “stick with you” throughout the day, so that the feeling you got from them just doesn’t really go away, or when you wake up and have to take a few minutes to distinguish the difference between the dream and reality, since the vivid dreams often have incredibly realistic conversations or activities occur in them.

So it was with some relief that after I finally decided to do some research on it and look into my symptoms (to all the doctors out there: I know, I know, hearing about self-diagnosis probably has you smacking your forehead in exasperation, but that’s how I roll), I discovered that I’m not totally crazy! Nightmares have actually been identified as a “real” issue. More than that, it isn’t that rare: up to 8% of adults have nightmare disorder. Considering our population levels, that’s quite a lot.

 What exactly is nightmare disorder?

Nightmares are common in children, and aren’t considered to be an actual disorder. However, if an adult has frequent nightmares (several times each week on an ongoing basis), the nightmares wake them up and they remember vivid details from the nightmares, and the nightmares have adverse effects in their waking life (such as anxiety [which might be where mine comes from!], not wanting to go to sleep at night for fear of the nightmares, etc.), then it’s likely nightmare disorder.

Nightmare disorder can cause health problems based on sleep disruption or not getting enough sleep – and as we all know, we need plenty of restful sleep to function properly and to be healthy!

What can you do to deal with nightmare disorder?

Unfortunately, there might not be much that you can do. The main things to try include changing behaviours (such as using imagery rehearsal treatment or exercising regularly), or seeing your doctor or a therapist for recommendations and to help you work through the disorder. Something that I’ve started doing – since I’ve tried a dozen different things and nothing has worked for the long-term** – is to write down my nightmares. It doesn’t make them go away, but at least it’s good fodder to include in a novel! Might as well get something out of it!

The last recommendation I will make, out of personal experience, is to talk about the content of your dreams with someone you trust. I don’t talk about the details of my nightmares all the time, but every now and then I’ll talk about them with Mr Science. He’s the one who pointed out to me that I have a lot of fear to deal with (which probably sounds like a “well, no kidding” moment, but it was something of a revelation for me – I hadn’t ever properly looked at the nightmares / waking fears connection. Which makes me ALSO wonder if that’s somehow related to the disordered eating. Everything is connected!).

When you start to really take into consideration the content of your nightmares, and what exactly made you afraid in them, you can learn something about how you internalize things and how your psyche works. For example, in one nightmare that I had, someone broke into my house and pointed a gun at me (which I then wrestled out of his hands because I can be pretty badass in my nightmares), but the real thing that actually freaked me out in the dream was when I dialed the emergency line and discovered no one was there to help me. Psychology, much? But seriously: if you can get over the creepiness of your nightmares, you have the opportunity to gain a lot of insight into your subconscious mind.

Do you have sleeping problems or a sleep disorder? Had you heard of nightmare disorder before? What do you do to sleep well? Share in the comments section below!

*Contrary to popular belief, insomnia doesn’t necessarily mean that you don’t EVER sleep, or that you spend days without being able to fall asleep at all. As described in Prescription for Nutritional Healing, “insomnia can take the form of being unable to fall asleep when you first go to bed or waking during the night and being unable to go back to sleep.” As someone who regularly takes a minimum of one to two hours to fall asleep, and wakes up on average two to four times each night, I can attest that it can be extremely debilitating!

**If all else fails, put some lavender near your pillow (or get a lavender spray to spray on your pillow before going to bed) – it doesn’t work every time, but sometimes it does help for falling asleep more calmly – and at the very least it smells delightful!

Disclaimer: please note that while I am a Certified Holistic Nutritionist, I am not a doctor – the above information is due to my own research and personal anecdotes. If you have problems sleeping, it’s a good idea to see your doctor about it!


  1. Cindy

    I don’t have a nightmare disorder although I have seasonal insomnia. I often do have frustrating dreams where I can’t solve some problem and I find I wake up still frustrated. Lavender is a good tip and I would think it would be more difficult to go to a bad place in your sleep when you smell something that you associate with good things. I do find lavender helps me get to sleep.

  2. Contemplative Fitness

    I have lived with this my entire adult life. Between read every possible book on the topic, seeing sleep specialists and sleep therapists (not the same), I have come to the conclusion that this is my lot in life, and I just accept it.

    The hardest part is that on nights when they are frequent (I may wake to a half-dozen or more nightmares on a given night), during the first few moments of being awake, it’s very hard to distinguish reality. Experience this day-in, and day-out, and it doesn’t take too long for one’s existential crisis to deepen.

    My would always tell me, “Nobody ever died from a lack of sleep.” Sometimes I wonder though, if people have killed because of it.

    In my case naps help me when I can sneak them in. It’s not the worst affliction in the world, but in my quietest moments, I often wonder how I would feel if I didn’t live with this.

    1. Sagan Morrow

      Oh isn’t the blogosphere such a small place! I could have written your comment verbatim – I feel exactly the same way. It’s SCARY when you can’t distinguish reality for those first few moments.

      And this: “It’s not the worst affliction in the world, but in my quietest moments, I often wonder how I would feel if I didn’t live with this.” Exactly. Me too.

  3. anony-mum

    From a Chinese Medicine perspective, nightmares and insomnia can be described as a “Shen disturbance”, “Yin deficiency” &/or “Phlegm misting the mind”. Perhaps a chinese medicine specialist may be able to help? My people will talk to your people.

  4. Chris

    Wow … what a relief to know I’m not alone! It’s crazy. I sometimes have as many as 3 bad dreams in a night. And I think I’ve become an insomniac because my mind refuses to sleep because it doesn’t want to have nightmares. I’ve pretty much been able to live around it. but it’s been with me since childhood.

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