How to Stop Having Nightmares

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Waking up terrified from a nightmare is unfortunately not all that uncommon. According to an article published by CNN, between 50% and 85% of adults experience nightmares at least occasionally. Other studies show that between 2% and 8% of adults experience terrifying dreams regularly. 

Although most sleep researchers believe nightmares are a normal feature of people’s lives, they can reduce the quality of your sleep and leave you feeling tired during the day. Moreover, having nightmares regularly may indicate other problems requiring a second glance. Thankfully, nightmares can be addressed with a few simple changes to your routine. 

This article looks at what causes nightmares and what you can do to prevent them from occurring regularly. 

What are nightmares?

Nightmares are frightening dreams that are vivid and realistic. They often result in poor sleep quality, and you may wake up remembering most details. They often cause your heart to race and perspire while you’re asleep. People experience nightmares during their rapid eye movement (REM) stage of sleep. WebMD states that most people experience nightmares during the early morning hours, as that is when REM sleep tends to get progressively longer. 

According to a study conducted by the University of Montreal, more than 50% of nightmares consist of physical aggression as a theme. While fear is the dominating emotion experienced during nightmares, other negative emotions during these bad dreams include anxiety, sadness, helplessness, and guilt. 

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As you can see, these are all emotions associated with stress, anxiety, and depression. It could be hypothesized that people overwhelmed by anxiety and depression experience nightmares more often. Of course, we tend to dream about things that we are most preoccupied with. For example, before and after an important exam, you may dream about endlessly writing your answers while time runs out. 

What causes nightmares in adults?

It is a myth that only children experience nightmares. As evidenced by the statistics listed in this article’s introduction, most adults experience nightmares occasionally, while a large portion experiences them regularly. 

Some scientists believe adults experience nightmares to process different life problems and challenges. Dreaming about these terrible things helps us reflect on what is happening in our lives. Other researchers hypothesize that nightmares may probably have an evolutionary role. They suggest that we experience nightmares because it prepares us for threatening situations in the future. 

However, we already know that people with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) experience recurring nightmares about incidents that took place in the past. This shows that nightmares could result from a combination of past memories, possible dreadful events in the future, current preoccupations, and a very wild imagination. 

This combination of the past, present, and future with a healthy dose of vivid imagination creates surprisingly rich and terrifying nightmares. Many writers and artists depend on their dreams and nightmares to create works of art. Unfortunately, most of us are not artists and wish that nightmares do not occur frequently. 

What are the health effects of nightmares in adults?

Nightmares are strongly correlated with anxiety and depression, highlighting the importance of mental health evaluation. As nightmares cause sleep deprivation, you may be at a higher risk of developing heart disease, hypertension, and obesity. Sleep apnea is another condition that is associated with nightmares. However, this can be corrected by certain medical interventions. As you can see, bad dreams have a detrimental effect on both physical and mental health. 

How can I stop my nightmares?

If your nightmares leave you feeling terrified and interfere with your sleep, there are many things that you can do to stop them. Here are a few tips:

Establish sleep hygiene

Sleep hygiene refers to the practice of creating the ideal situation to fall asleep and sleep well. 

  • Set a sleep schedule. Go to bed, and wake up at the same time every day. 
  • Use your bedroom only for sleep or sex. 
  • Avoid using cell phones and other screens for a few hours before bed. 
  • Do not drink caffeinated drinks several hours before bedtime.

Reduce your alcohol intake

Many people use alcohol to sleep better. It makes people drowsy, and they may fall asleep quickly. However, alcohol interferes with your sleep quality and can initiate nightmares. In addition, it dehydrates you and leaves you tired the next day. Try to avoid drinking alcohol regularly

Avoid eating before bedtime

Eating before bedtime can disrupt your metabolism. In addition to causing blood sugar spikes, some researchers believe they can cause bad dreams too. According to the National Sleep Foundation, eating right before bed boosts metabolism and triggers nightmares due to brain activity. 

Review your medications

Several medicines can cause nightmares, including antidepressants, antipsychotic medication, and anti-anxiolytics. In addition, certain drugs used to treat hypertension and allergies can also cause nightmares. Review your medicines and speak with your doctor to enquire if any of your medications have been causing nightmares. 

Address your stress

Stress is a well-known trigger of nightmares. As stressful situations leave us helpless and hopeless, these emotions are reflected in our dream content. Addressing your stress levels can help you avoid experiencing bad dreams. 

Keep a thought diary.

Keeping a dream journal is an effective way of understanding your nightmares. Nightmares can help us understand our anxieties and fears and allow us to take action. This preparedness often reduces our stress and thus minimizes the occurrence of nightmares. 

Avoid watching or reading upsetting things right before bed.

Firstly, you shouldn’t be watching anything right before bed. Secondly, watching content that is disturbing or terrifying can cause nightmares. Terrifying content often gets replayed in our minds in the form of nightmares. 

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Reinterpret your dreams

Dreams often try to tell us something, and so do nightmares. Although a lot of our good and bad dreams are inconsequential, some may have interpretive value. Try to remember your nightmares and reinterpret them in a less threatening manner. 

Consider using a white noise machine.

White noise is known to help people fall asleep quickly and mask background noises. You can choose an application that plays white noise or turn on the fan (if it is not too cold where you live). 

Get your mental health evaluated.

Nightmares are strongly associated with depression, stress, anxiety, and PTSD. Hence, seeking the help of a mental health professional may be necessary and beneficial. Addressing underlying mental health conditions may reduce the frequency of nightmares and allow you to sleep better. 

Create the right ambiance.

A clutter-free bedroom can help people fall asleep better. On the other hand, keeping things that may distort your vision, such as hanging clothes that resemble terrifying beings, can cause nightmares. Ensure your bedroom is pleasantly arranged and there is no scope for unpleasant illusions. 

Play some sleep music.

There are several applications that can help you fall asleep with the help of sleep music. Sleep music consists of meditative tones that are relaxing and soothing. These musical pieces can reduce your stress levels and help you sleep better. 

How to prevent bad dreams?

You can do many things in addition to the tips listed above. 

Relax

Try Jacobson’s progressive muscular relaxation (JPMR). All you need to do is to feel the tension in different muscle groups and release them slowly. This relaxes your body and reduces your anxiety and stress. 

Do meditation

Meditation, especially mindfulness meditation, improves sleep quality and reduces stress and anxiety. By practicing mindfulness meditation regularly, you can prevent the occurrence of nightmares and ensure restful sleep. 

Reframe your thoughts

If nightmares become too bothersome, you may have to reframe your thoughts. Cognitive behavior therapy can help you reassess and counter your thought patterns with more rational ones. Do keep a diary to record your nightmares so that you can counter possible nightmarish scenarios with realistic situations while awake. 

Use biofeedback for sleep disorders

Biofeedback devices are known to help people reduce their stress and anxiety levels. There are many benefits of using biofeedback for sleep disorders. These devices help track one’s breathing, perspiration, body temperature, heart rate, and other biological signifiers of stress and anxiety. With practice, one can reduce their stress and anxiety, leading to fewer nightmares.

Jaiyant Cavale, Clinical Psychologist
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