• Dreams are puzzling and can cause us to question their root cause — especially when they’re violent and they keep us up at night.
  • As it turns out, there are several common causes of violent dreams, one being the fear of violence.
  • Another common source of violent dreams is thinking about violence (especially before bed); did you just watch a violent movie or video game? Your brain is processing these violent acts.
  • You might also have violent dreams after starting a new medication, as they alter the biochemistry in your brain.
  • Finally, your violent dreams could be rooted in a traumatic experience: If you were exposed to violence in your childhood, you’re more likely to have these violent dreams throughout your lifetime.
  • Try not to obsess over your violent dreams when awake — instead, recognize that it’s normal to have violent dreams from time to time and let thoughts about the dreams come and go.

Have you ever wondered what your dreams mean? The contents of our dreams can be quite perplexing — especially when they’re violent and scary.

Take, for example, a recurring dream I used to have when I was a kid: It’s my birthday, and I’m wandering around my backyard. My friends and family are scattered about, playing on the slide, the swings, and in the bounce house. Then, all of a sudden, a clown pops up with a big needle in hand. He’s dressed as a doctor and insists on giving me the shot. I do my best to run away, but he catches me and pricks me with the needle, prompting me to wake up.

At the time, this dream was terrifying. Every night, I was afraid to fall asleep — I didn’t want to have this scary, violent dream again. Finally, about a year later, I stopped having this nightmare and realized that it was rooted in my fear of getting shots at the doctor.

While this isn’t your typical act of violence, the possibility of injury and pain fit the bill for me and obviously scared me to my core. But violent dreams aren’t always explained by a fear of violence. Let’s delve deeper into this cause, and several alternative explanations, with the help of Licensed Psychologist Dr. Chris Cortman.

Violent Dreams, Caused by a Fear of Violence

First, let’s talk further about the fear of violence as a cause of violent dreams. As Cortman explains, we often dream about our biggest fears, which for me, meant dreaming about clowns with big needles.

“Our worst fears often show up in our dreams. Men who are afraid of going bald will lose their hair time and again in their dreams. People who are afraid of getting lost will lose their way in their dreams,” he says. “I used to strike out, drop passes, and miss free throws in my dreams because of my love of athletics and fear of failure. People are frequently exposed to violence on TV and in movies and are very afraid of such. There is a real possibility that this fear will surface in their dreams.”

Think about the contents of your violent dream — are they reflective of a fear you have in real life? For example, if you’re having violent dreams about being kidnapped, you might have a deep-seated fear of being kidnapped. The same goes for violent dreams about a car accident, an animal attack, and other violent content.

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3 Other Causes of Violent Dreams

If you don’t have a fear of violence — or at least it isn’t extreme enough to torment your dreams and keep you up at night — there might be other factors at play. Here are a few potential explanations:

1) Violence is on your mind.

Another simple explanation is that violence is on your mind, as our dreams are often composed of recent thoughts or events. “When it comes to dreams, always remember that they are born from the material inside the dreamer’s head. That is, I will never dream about your uncle Stephen, and you will never dream about my first-grade teacher, Ms. Davis,” Cortman explains. “That said, dreams are a way of taking unnecessary material from our minds and bringing it to the curb to be tossed out. Before that happens, it is very likely that things that have nothing to do with one another will be thrown in the same blender and come out together.”

So, another possible explanation for dreaming about being kidnapped is you’ve been watching or reading a lot of true crime lately. It’s top of mind, and your brain is still processing that content.

2) You’re on a new medication.

Another lesser-known cause of aggressive or violent dreams is medication. “Medications can definitely contribute to violent dreams. I remember patients telling me when they got on a brand-new antidepressant, they dreamed that they angrily drove somebody over in their car,” says Cortman. “Medications alter the biochemistry of the brain and therefore can influence dreams.”

3) You’re grappling with trauma.

Finally, your violent dreams might be rooted in trauma. It’s common to have nightmares about traumatic experiences, making it difficult to sleep at night. This trauma might go as far back as one’s childhood.

“Violence can occur in someone’s dreams because they have been exposed to violence in their childhood: watching dad hit mom in a drunken rage, etc. People from rough neighborhoods may have a lot of dreams of violence because they were exposed to the sound of gunfire and screaming in their neighborhoods,” he explains. “Whatever has not been digested may repeat on you. That’s true for the stomach, but also for the mind.”

Dealing with Violent Dreams

Remember, it’s relatively normal to have violent and/or disturbing dreams — especially if one or more of the above rings true for you.

“Try not to dwell on them or worry about them too much during waking hours,” says Emily Simonian, Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (LMFT) and Head of Learning at Thriveworks. “Similar to intrusive thoughts, recognize that their occurrence is something that happens from time to time as you’re processing something, and let thoughts about the dreams come and go if you can.”