Bad Dream? Women Have More Nightmares Than Men — Here’s Why
Plus, how to wake yourself up.
Imagine you’re drifting off to sleep, warm and safe beneath your down comforter. Your cat is snoozing quietly by your side. Soon, you fade from consciousness and find yourself in Dreamland. You’re amidst beautiful mountains, having a picnic with your best friend and eating a delicious chocolate cake. Suddenly, an avalanche rushes down the mountain toward you. The tidal wave of snow is covering everything in its path — you can’t possibly make it out alive. You run as fast as you possibly can; then suddenly, you wake up. You’re covered in sweat and feel anything but well-rested. Not another nightmare! At least the avalanche wasn’t real. Too bad the chocolate cake wasn’t, either.
Can you relate? Studies suggest that there is a gender disparity in the frequency of nightmares: Women, in general, have more nightmares than men; are more likely to suffer from intense dreams than men; and are able to recall their intense dreams with more clarity than men. (Lucky us.) Keep reading if you’re curious about why women have more nightmares and what our nightmares are about, plus discover some expert tips on how to wake up from a nightmare and even prevent them from happening in the future.
Why do women have more nightmares than men?
Dr Nereida Gonzalez-Berrios, MD, a psychiatrist at ThePleasantDream (a site studying and providing dream analyses), says that nightmares are a reflection of our deepest fears and concerns. Whatever challenges we face in the waking world are wont to show up when we’re sleeping — and women, in particular, are extremely stressed. “In society, women are held to different expectations than men, [and] an attempt on the part of women to realize those high expectations can lead them to suppress their emotions,” she explains. “Suppressed emotions and experiencing more violence, abuse, and assaults can be reasons why women are prone to more nightmares.” Indeed, women are more likely to experience repeated and severe forms of abuse, including sexual violence, than men.
Matthias Dettmann, a psychologist (M.Sc.), also told ThePleasantDream that “several studies suggest women may experience more nightmares than men due to their tendency to remember their dreams better. Also, hormonal fluctuations in women during their menstrual cycle, pregnancy, and menopause can lead to changes in sleep patterns and affect the occurrence of nightmares.”
What do women have nightmares about?
Of course, nightmares vary from person to person. As a kid, I dreamt compulsively about scary, mischievous wolves (probably thanks to Little Red Riding Hood); now, as an adult who spends a lot of time driving, I have car accident nightmares. But plenty more dreams are universal: Most of us have probably at one point experienced nightmares about losing a loved one, for example.
“According to research and anecdotal evidence, some types of nightmares may be more common in women,” says Ellie Borden, BA, RP, PCC, clinical director and psychotherapist at Mind by Design. “Women often have nightmares about being chased or attacked, as they are more likely to become victims [of those things]. Falling or drowning is another nightmare theme common in women, which reflects feelings of helplessness or vulnerability. These are more prevalent in women because they face gender-based oppression and discrimination.”
Dr. Abhinav Singh, medical director at Indiana Sleep Center and expert at SleepFoundation.org, notes that factors which may increase nightmares include PTSD, alcohol consumption, certain medications (like antidepressants), and emotional or physical trauma.
Do nightmares improve with age?
Nightmares are common in children, and their frequency tends to decrease with age. When they do not, increased dementia risk could be a factor. A 2022 study found a link between people who experienced frequent bad dreams in middle age and a faster rate of cognitive decline. One possible reason? People with nightmares have poor quality sleep, which can gradually lead to a buildup of proteins associated with dementia.
Dr. Deborah Vinall, PSY-D, LMFT, and certified trauma therapist, told ThePleasantDream that “nightmares decrease as we heal from or resolve the causal psychological stressors or trauma. Because traumas are more heavily concentrated in one’s early years, with time and intention, whether through formal psychotherapy or other healing means, nightmares may decrease with time and age.”
Are there any tricks you can use to wake yourself up from a bad dream?
There’s nothing that will work for everyone, so you’ll have to experiment. The classic technique of pinching yourself to determine whether you’re dreaming may not be as full-proof as you’d think, seeing as it’s pretty easy to dream of pinching yourself. Personally, I’ve found great success with attempting to clap my hands or yell loudly when I’m in the midst of a nightmare (the yell will extend to me making a noise in real life, and I’ll wake myself up).
The key, of course, is knowing that you’re dreaming in the first place. In order to force yourself to wake up from a troubled dream, you must first realize that it isn’t real. This is called becoming “lucid”; lucid dreaming is the act of recognizing the fact that you are dreaming. Some people are even able to control how the action in their dream unfolds, as though directing a play; they can alter the frightening events of a nightmare and change the dream into something more pleasant. But this takes practice. Some studies have shown a link between inducing lucid dreams and overcoming the fear associated with nightmares.
How can you prevent bad dreams?
While Dr. Singh notes that there are no scientifically proven ways to wake yourself up from a nightmare, he does provide some advice about what to do once you are conscious again. He suggests changing your sleeping position and splashing water on your face, and also writing down the content of your nightmare to eventually share it with someone else (this will reduce the fear). He also recommends you try writing down your dream content with an alternative ending — one that’s happier or more positive — and attempt to remember the dream through that narrative.
In order to prevent bad dreams going forward, Dr. Singh proposes de-stressing prior to getting into bed with a calming or meditative routine that works for you (e.g. gratitude journaling). Additionally, make sure you don’t have a more serious sleep disorder such as sleep apnea (snoring and gasping for air are telltale signs — so go see a doctor if those symptoms occur), and always try to get adequate sleep, as sleep deprivation can increase your chance of nightmares. Finally, avoid consuming alcohol and caffeine before bedtime, since these can disrupt sleep patterns.
Ultimately, dreams are mysterious. But our brain is a creative and reactive organ, which makes the images it paints another fascinating part of being alive (even dogs dream!). Do your best to learn from a nightmare, if you can. Think about what scares you most and how you can address that fear head-on, and maybe even triumph over it.
This content is not a substitute for professional medical advice or diagnosis. Always consult your physician before pursuing any treatment plan.
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