Do you have Nightmare Disorder?

By David Joel Miller, MS, Licensed Therapist & Licensed Counselor.


Nightmares maintain depression and PTSD.
Photo courtesy of Pixabay

Do you have bad dreams or is that a Nightmare Disorder?

We know there are connections between sleep, sleep disruptions and a number of mental illnesses. The connection between nightmares and Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is fairly well-recognized. Dreams related to your trauma is one of the symptoms of PTSD. What often goes unnoticed is just how connected poor sleep and having a mental or physical health issue can be.

Sleep disturbances can be both the result of and the cause of significant life problems. Many people ignore their bad dreams and nightmares. You shouldn’t. Disturbed sleep may be a warning that something much worse is on its way. Some of these issues can threaten your life and your sanity. Frequent nightmares increase the risk someone will attempt suicide. Drinking to shut off the nightmares increases the suicide risk even more.

Nightmare Disorder is included as a Mental Disorder in the DSM-5.

Nightmares fall along a continuum which runs from an occasional upsetting dream through frequent bad dreams that leave you feeling upset when you wake up, to those severe things like Nightmares and ends at the point of Sleep Terror Disorder where people wake up screaming. Sleep Terror Disorder along with Sleep Walking was combined in the DSM-5 getting the new name Non-Rapid Eye Movement Disorders, but that’s a topic that needs to wait for a future post.

Bad sleep is a symptom found in several other mental Illnesses so the sleep disorders get little attention from most Therapists. Given the human tendency to pretend there is nothing wrong with us until we hit the wall so to speak, it is not surprising a lot of sleep disorders go undiagnosed or get diagnosed as something else.

Nightmare Disorder is part of a group of conditions called Sleep-Wake Disorders.

Sleep-Wake disorders do not get diagnosed or treated by therapists of counselors all that often. Usually, sleep problems get one of two problematic treatments. They could be referred to a sleep disorder specialist who uses the International Classification of Sleep Disorders (ICSD-2) with its myriad subcategories. The other possibility is that sleep disorders are often taken as a symptom of a more common mental illness.

Poor sleep could be anxiety, depression or PTSD.

Nightmares or Bad Dreams can be a part of some anxiety disorders. Changes in sleep and appetite are key symptoms of depression. But just having bad dreams in and of itself does not automatically get you an anxiety or depression diagnosis.

Many nightmares are a part of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD.)

Trauma- and Stressor-Related Disorders are such major factors in mental health that the Trauma- and Stressor-Related Disorders now have their own DSM chapter. Bad dreams and nightmares are one major factor in PTSD and other similar disorders that once you say you have bad dreams expect the professional to ask about any trauma history and any recent or current stressors.

If you have PTSD or another Trauma-Stress related issue nightmares are likely, but just because you have bad dreams does not mean you have PTSD. When I decide to write this post on Nightmare Disorder I looked up a hundred or so recent research articles on Nightmares and Bad Dreams. The largest part, a strong majority of those articles, were about Nightmares in people with PTSD. But there were a bunch of other mental health conditions that were connected to poor sleep also.

Nightmares and Bad dreams are connected to Borderline Personality Disorder, OCD, DID, GAD and aging.

That is only part of the list. OCD stands for Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, DID is Dissociative Identity Disorder and GAD is for Generalized Anxiety Disorder. Each of these diagnosis has related OCD like, Dissociative and Anxiety Disorders.

All these related disorders including bad dreams of one kind or another which makes me wonder if many people with one mental illness should also be getting a diagnosis of Nightmare Disorder. That and sleep disorders are one of the factors leading to the development of other mental health issues. In that vein, sleep disorders also greatly increase the risk of relapse in those with a substance use disorder.

What are the symptoms of Nightmare Disorder?

For the full text of the symptom see the official DSM-5 but here is my short, plain language version.

  1. Frequent, upsetting, bad dreams that really scare you.
  2. You can wake up quickly.
  3. These bad dreams are getting in the way of you living your life (family friends, job etc.)
  4. Drugs, alcohol or another mental illness are not the best explanation for why this is happening.

On top of these and a few other more specific criteria, Nightmare Disorder has a bunch of “specifiers” about when how often and how bad these dreams are.

A word of caution here. This is post is an effort to explain some kind-of complicated stuff. Diagnosis should not be a do-it-yourself project. There are a bunch of other Sleep-Wake Disorders that might also need to be ruled in or out. Some sleep problems are a sign of life-threatening physical conditions. You may also have some other mental issue or guess what?

Your bad dreams may be a normal reaction to some stress in your life right now.

Drinking alcohol to quiet bad dreams is a really bad idea. The amount it takes to knock you out is very close to the amount that will kill you. Especially do not mix alcohol with prescribed sleep or anxiety meds. You can work with your doctor on meds for bad dreams but when the meds wear off the dreams can get worse.

If you are having sleep disruption, bad dreams, nightmares, night terrors or related sleep problems, talk with your doctor or other professional and see if medication, therapy or some other treatment might be helpful to you. Don’t put it off. Even normal sleep issues if left untreated can eventually impair your physical or mental health.

You might want to take a look at other posts on:


Dreams and Nightmares 

Stay tuned, more on sleep’s connections to mental health, wellness and recovery are coming.

Staying connected with David Joel Miller

Two David Joel Miller Books are available now!

Bumps on the Road of Life. Whether you struggle with anxiety, depression, low motivation, or addiction, you can recover. Bumps on the Road of Life is the story of how people get off track and how to get your life out of the ditch.

Casino Robbery is a novel about a man with PTSD who must cope with his symptoms to solve a mystery and create a new life.

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