Dear Dr. Garner,
I have a big problem. I am 45 years old and in good health overall. I do have mild high blood pressure, and I have been treated for depression.
I have a wonderful family with two children, ages nine and 15.
My problem is that I am afraid to go to sleep. Whenever I sleep, I have this really scary nightmare in which strange men are chasing after me. I always outrun them, but they are getting closer and closer and keep laughing as they chase me.
I wake up in a sweat, and my heart is beating very quickly.
Is it strange that I am still having nightmares at my age? Is there anything I can do to stop them?
Nightmares Ruining Sleep in Sheepshead Bay
Nightmares can occur and be scary at any age; however, most occur in younger children and teens.
Occasional nightmares are not a cause for concern. Yours seem to be more than occasional, and your life is being affected. Recent studies have shown that sleep deprivation, which can occur with nightmares, can cause poor performance in work and school and even lead to more accidents while driving.
Nightmares are known as parasomnias (a good Scrabble word).
How does one know if he or she has had a nightmare?
Some clues include being awakened by the dream, and feeling scared, anxious, sad or upset about it. The person usually remembers the details of the dream. Typically, the nightmare occurs just before you are about to wake up.
What can cause nightmares? Some very basic things:
• Stress – the death of a loved one, money problems or just the ordinary stress of daily life
• Medications – beta blockers, anti-depressants, sleep medicines, narcotics and drugs used to treat Parkinson’s disease, among others
• Eating food before bedtime – food causes increased metabolism in the body and a rise in brain activity
• Reading scary books or seeing frightening movies
• Alcohol/drug abuse – interruption of the normal sleep cycle occurs
• Very serious accidents or witnessing of horrendous events, such as the World Trade Center tragedy
• Serious medical illness accompanied by a fever
It is helpful to keep a sleep diary before you see your doctor. This can be very useful in making a diagnosis as well as planning treatment. Write down the events of the evening of your nightmare. Did you eat a big spicy meal before bed? Did anything happen to make you nervous? Record all the medications you are taking. What symptoms did you experience?
There is no right or wrong thing to write down in the diary. Just remember that the more information you can give to your doctor, the better the chance of accurate diagnosis and treatment.
In some cases, your doctor will order a sleep study, in which you will stay overnight in a sleep lab. Here, your blood pressure, heartbeat and brain waves will be recorded. Doctors can monitor your oxygen levels, your breathing and muscle tension.
Treatment for nightmares depends on the cause. For example, if it is due to stress or anxiety, your doctor may suggest stress-reducing treatment, such as medication, counseling or lifestyle change.
There are medications that your doctor can review with you which may help prevent nightmares.
You are not alone in experiencing nightmares. Here are the top 10 nightmares that adults experience:
1. Being chased or attacked
2. Falling or drowning
3. Being trapped or confined
4. Fear of your spouse leaving you
5. A severe injury – loss of limbs
6. Teeth falling out
7. Being naked in public (this could be a nightmare for the public)
8. A plane crash
9. Seeing ghosts
10. Hurricanes, earthquakes and other natural disasters
Since this problem is affecting your sleep, which can have serious consequences, visit your doctor.[hr]
Dr. Steven Garner is a Fidelis Care provider who is affiliated with New York Methodist Hospital, Park Slope. He also hosts “Ask the Doctor” on NET, Tuesdays at 8 p.m. on Ch. 97 Time Warner and Ch. 30 Cablevision.