No, we're not about to tell you that dreaming of a deep blue ocean means you're soon to embark on a long journey or that being chased by a giant spider indicates you're set to inherit some money. However, the frequency, intensity and nature of your dreams can provide very clear clues about your mental and physical health. Learning to recognise these warning signs will help you tackle any issues, often at an early stage.
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Is it time to tackle your stress levels?
It's no surprise to learn that frequent disturbing dreams are a symptom of stress and anxiety. Any major life event – such as moving home or redundancy – can trigger nightmares. Women tend to have more nightmares than men, according to a study at the University of the West of England. The researchers also found that anxieties about disturbing past events often reoccur as 'emblem' dreams.
The key, of course, is to take steps to address the underlying stress. Relaxation techniques, such as meditation and yoga, taking regular exercise and cutting down on stimulants including alcohol and caffeine, can all help. But it's also a good idea to consult your GP and discuss whether therapy or medication may be beneficial.
10 ways to reduce stress
Are you suffering from PTSD?
Nightmares are a common symptom of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) – anxiety caused by very stressful, frightening or disturbing events, such as a car crash, military combat, violent assault or a devastating bereavement. People with PTSD often relive the traumatic event through nightmares.
If you think you or a loved one may be suffering from PTSD, it's important to seek medical support as soon as possible. Psychotherapy can be hugely beneficial. In particular, a form of cognitive behavioural therapy called imagery rehearsal therapy (IRT) aims to change your nightmares by rehearsing or writing down how you'd like them to play out in advance.
Are you getting enough sleep?
Sleep deprivation can lead to disturbing dreams, particularly if you've been keeping irregular hours. What's more, the joint presence of insomnia and nightmares has a significant effect on the severity of depression, say researchers at Tokyo Medical University.
So aim to keep a regular bedtime routine: go to bed and get up at the same time every day, including weekends, and keep your bedroom for sleep and sex only.
Why not getting enough sleep puts your health at risk
What time did you have dinner?
If you tend to eat your main meal later in the evening, or regularly enjoy a late-night snack, you're more likely to suffer nightmares. The reason? Your body is working overtime to digest your food when it should be entering a restorative phase – which in turn, increases brain activity.
Hard-to-process sugar and starch are among the worst culprits: a 2015 study of 396 students, published in Frontiers in Psychology, found that 31 per cent reported bizarre and disturbing dreams after eating sugary biscuits and cakes.
Take control of your snacking
Could your medication be to blame?
Some drugs can occasionally trigger bad dreams. In particular, nightmares can be an unpleasant side effect of certain antidepressants, blood pressure medication, smoking cessation treatments and drugs used to treat Parkinson's disease. There's even anecdotal evidence that statins can cause nightmares for some people. Withdrawal from certain drugs can also temporarily trigger vivid dreams. So if you're worried by dreams after a change in medication or dosage, consult your GP.
Q&A with Dr Mark Porter: are my nightmares linked to statins?
Are your hormones affecting your dreams?
Hormonal changes can wreak havoc on sleep patterns, which causes more nightmares. In particular, some women experience more bad dreams during the lead-up to the menopause as oestrogen levels drop, which in turn affects levels of the feel-good brain chemical serotonin. Other menopause symptoms such as night sweats and anxiety lead to broken sleep, heightening the chances of disturbing dreams.
The trick, of course, is to address each symptom – wear light, cotton pyjamas and keep the bedroom cool to alleviate night sweats, for example – but in severe cases, hormone replacement therapy (HRT) may be recommended.
How to deal with hot flushes, night sweats and other menopause symptoms
Do you have sleep apnoea?
Sleep apnoea is a condition in which the walls of the throat relax and narrow during sleep, interrupting normal breathing patterns. People who suffer the most severe symptoms also report the most 'emotionally negative and unpleasant nightmares', according to a Swansea University study.
Losing weight, cutting down on alcohol and giving up smoking can lessen the symptoms. A continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) device – a small pump that delivers air through a mask – may also help.
Dealing with sleep apnoea
Could it be something else serious?
Various studies have identified regular nightmares as a symptom or pre-indicator of other physical health conditions. A couple of examples? Older people who have nightmares are three times more likely to suffer irregular heartbeat, according to a study published in the Netherlands Journal of Medicine.
Nightmares may also occur as the result of low blood sugar in people with diabetes.
Ultimately, if you've suffered bad dreams for more than a few weeks, there could be an underlying health cause that can be easily addressed - so do make an appointment to see your GP.