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If you have ever woken up with the sweats, your heart racing, then you know how horrifying a nightmare can be. While these are often explained away as nothing more than imagination gone awry in children, what causes these terrifying experiences as adults?

For some, it’s nothing more than the same situation at an older age. The power of suggestion can, at times, take hold and something as simple as a scary movie or reading a spooky story may trigger your imagination leading to a chilling experience. Just as we all have our own unique personalities and character traits, some people are more susceptible to this type of outside influence than others. On the other hand, some experts believe that the experience of nightmares after a scary movie may be traced back to past life experiences and past baggage.

“Think of the movie as having prompted issues that need your deeper attention. Do not dismiss it as caused by the movie,” warns dream therapist Jane Teresa Anderson. She encourages those who experience these frightening dreams to step back and consider what experience from the past may be responsible. It’s possible your nightmare is a sign that there are past hurts that demand your attention. “Once enlightened,” Anderson adds, “you can act upon the insight you gain, and your dreaming mind may then have no further use of the symbol: issue resolved.”

How serious must these problems be in order to trigger this kind of reaction? While even the smallest experience may stick with us, triggering slightly scary or unsettling thoughts, experts reveal that nightmares are most common in adults that are suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

According to the Sleep Health Foundation, adult nightmares are far less common than they are in children. While anywhere from 10-50% of children will experience nighttime terrors, only 2.5-10% of adults will make the same claim. Nightmares in children are often a product of an overactive imagination, with young children fearing the existence of ‘the Boogie Man’, ghosts, goblins and monsters. However, adults have a better grip on reality. As such, nightmares in adulthood are often based in reality, recollections of past events or experiences.

In a report investigating the connection between PTSD and nightmares, researchers from the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine revealed that 90% of people who have been diagnosed with PTSD report “disturbing dreams with some degree of resemblance to the actual traumatic event.” In other words, by night they are reliving their trauma all over again, similar to the flashbacks that many experience during the day. In these experiences, the only way to find relief from these nightmares is to deal with the deeper issues and address their PTSD directly.

This isn’t, however, to say that all nightmares are caused by PTSD. As Rubin Naiman, psychologist and clinical professor of medicine at the University of Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine explains, “Occasional nightmares are a normal part of dreaming and can provide valuable insight into our psychological and spiritual lives.” This could simply be the subconscious trying to relay a message. The question is, are you interested in discovering what this message may be?