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04-08 Nightmares are a sign of more than bad dreams

Nightmares are a sign of more than bad dreams

Sleep is good for us.

That can’t be stressed enough. The National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute (NHLBI) says sleep protects physical and mental health, quality of life and even safety.

Lack of sleep can affect decision-making, problem-solving and one control of emotions and behavior. Poor sleep has been linked to heart disease, diabetes and stroke. The NHLBI reports that sleep deficiencies may also play a role in obesity.

This is why getting enough sleep is especially important for teenagers.

Teens and sleep

The National Sleep Foundation (NSF) reports teens face the same problems as sleep-deprived adults – with the addition of skin problems like acne. More importantly, the biological clock begins to shift forward during the teen years, which is why a lot of teens seem to become more alert in the evenings and have difficulty slowing down at bedtime. This is largely because melatonin, the hormone that helps create the urge to sleep, is secreted at later times in teens than it is in adults, which is also why teens are often groggy in the morning.

So it’s good to encourage teens to do as much as possible to get healthy sleep, such as turning off their devices – which is a good idea for adults as well. However, even the healthiest sleeper can experience the occasional nightmare. Nightmares – which the Mayo Clinic describes as disturbing dreams associated with negative feelings like fear and anxiety – are common and usually nothing to be concerned about. But some studies have shown a link between nightmares, depression and insomnia.

Nightmares a sign of sleep disorders and depression?

Last year, researchers from the Centre for Cognitive Neuroscience at the University of Turku in Finland examined data from two surveys of the Finnish population. Done in 2007 and 2012, the surveys looked at nearly 14,000 adults between the ages of 25 and 74. More than 45 percent of the respondents reported having had a nightmare in the past 30 days – 50.6 percent reported experiencing no nightmares.

However, 28.4 percent of the respondents who also had symptoms of severe depression reported having frequent nightmares, along with 17.1 percent of those who also had insomnia.

Speaking in an American Academy of Sleep Medicine press release, study co-author Nils Sandman said, “It might be possible that nightmares could function as early indicators of onset of depression and therefore have previously untapped diagnostic value.”

Insomnia, nightmares and depression

The relationship between nightmares and depression also came up in a recent study done in Florida. Researchers from Florida State University analyzed results from a web-based survey on mental health taken by current and retired American firefighters. The firefighters, between 18 and 82 years of age, answered questions about insomnia, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and emotional difficulties.

Over half of the firemen reported having insomnia symptoms and nearly 40 percent reported having symptoms of depression. Nearly 20 percent reported nightmare problems. As the researchers dug deeper into the results, they discovered the combination of insomnia and nightmares seemed to increase a risk of depression by making the regulation of emotions more difficult.

The Mayo Clinic says nightmares can be caused by a variety of reasons – and not just scary media seen before bedtime. Stress, trauma and substance abuse can trigger nightmares. Although everyone deals with the occasional bad dream, prolonged periods of disturbed – and disturbing – sleep might warrant clinical intervention.

Sovereign Health’s adolescent program provides children aged 12 to 17 with modern, holistic and evidenced-based treatment for mental health, substance and eating disorders. For more information on our treatment center for adolescents and teens located in Rancho San Diego, contact our 24/7 helpline.

About the author

Brian Moore is a staff writer and graphic designer for the Sovereign Health Group. A 20-year veteran of the newspaper industry, he writes articles and creates graphics across Sovereign’s portfolio of marketing and content products. Brian enjoys music, bicycling and playing the tuba, which’s he’s done with varying degrees of success for over 25 years. For more information and other inquiries about this media, contact the author and designer at

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