What Causes Nightmares and How to Stop Them From Ruining Your Sleep Tonight

March 10th 2017

Almie Rose

Here's a fun activity: Type "nightmares" and "election" into the Twitter search bar. What you'll find is countless tweets like these:

A lot of people are stressed out, and politics has made it worse. The American Psychological Association reported in February 2017 that two-thirds of people in the United States "say they are stressed about the future of our nation, including a majority of both Democrats and Republicans. Indeed, "More than half of Americans (57 percent) say the current political climate is a very or somewhat significant source of stress, and nearly half (49 percent) say the same about the outcome of the election."


Stress is a major factor in nightmares.

According to Psychology Today, "most nightmares may be a normal reaction to stress, and some clinicians believe they aid people in working through traumatic events." That's of of little help when you're in the midst of an intense nightmare, however. So how can you prevent one from happening?

The obvious answer is to try to reduce your levels of stress. Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D., a professor of Psychological and Brain Sciences at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, laid out her top tip for avoiding nightmares in a column for Psychology Today: her number one tip for avoiding nightmares is to "put your worries to rest when you put your head down to rest. As much as possible, try to clear your head of your day’s annoyances and unpleasant events." Her suggestion for doing that? "Focus on the positive events that happened to you during the day or, if you had none, try to put a positive spin on what you did experience."

Is food a factor when it comes to nightmares?

Food can play a part. You may have heard that spicy food causes nightmares, but it's not actually about the level of spice in your food — it's the food itself. As The Wall Street Journal reported in 2016 after speaking with Emmanuel Mignot, director of the Stanford University Center for Sleep Sciences and Medicine: "while there is a lot of literature showing that eating big meals makes people sleepy, there are no studies that Dr. Mignot knows of that prove that spicy foods in particular induce nightmares or outlandish dreams."

Chilischote und Chilipulver

What spicy foods can do, however, is disrupt your sleep by giving you heartburn or making you restless. As Dr. Mignot explained to The Wall Street Journal: "Spicy foods increase your body temperature, so they may make you sleep less well — and as a consequence, your dreams may be more conscious."

When it comes to food and nightmares, nearly every doctor agrees the best thing to do is to avoid eating before bed, especially a large meal. According to Livestrong, "although scientists are still unsure of the relationship between dreams and eating before bed, it is clear that eating close to sleeping can cause disrupted sleep. You should especially avoid heavy meals, spicy food and anything likely to create indigestion, starting about two to three hours before you go to sleep."

So, in summary, how can you avoid nightmares?

  • Try to release the stress of your day before trying to fall asleep.
  • Focus on the positive things that happened to you that day.
  • Don't eat a big, heavy meal two to three hours before bedtime.

And another thing that might help: putting down your phone and saving the Facebook rants for the morning.