Bad Dreams (A.K.A.) nightmares are what the American Academy of Sleep Medicine call "vivid, realistic and disturbing dreams typically involving threats to survival or security, which often evoke emotions of anxiety, fear or terror."
While nightmare disorders are relatively rare, nightmares can happen to anyone at any age. It is estimated that anywhere from 2-8% of people report sleep disturbances due to nightmares, and 80% of adults report having occasional nightmares. The key difference in a nightmare disorder is the inability to get sufficient sleep because of chronic disturbing dreams, which may require attention and treatment options by a medical professional.
According to Joshua Tal, a sleep and health psychologist, "Dreams usually incorporate things that happened during the day, leading some researchers to hypothesize that dreams and rapid eye movement sleep are essential for memory consolidation and cognitive rejuvenation. Nightmares are the mind's attempts at making sense of these events, by replaying them in images during sleep."
Having frequent nightmares can cause stress and impairment in sleep, which, in more severe cases, can lead to insomnia, depression, and thoughts of suicidal behavior.
These tips may help improve your sleep and ease your bad dreams.
1. Getting Deeper Sleep
In some cases, the best way to help stop bad dreams that wake you up during the middle of the night, is to create a sleep plan that will help you get deeper sleep. The deeper the sleep, the lower chance you have to wake up.
Nightmares occur during REM sleep (rapid eye movement sleep stage). This sleep stage is characterized by dreaming. When we wake up during REM sleep, it enables us to remember and recreate distressing situations. Getting deeper sleep can be the best chance to keep the chance of waking up lower.
Getting regular exercise, sticking to a clean diet, going to bed at a regular time, keeping your room dark, cool and quiet are all excellent ways to ensure you get a deep slumber.
2. Use a Sound Machine
If you wake up from a nightmare, it can send you into a fight-or-flight response causing you physical and mental distress. In some cases, it may be common to experience hot flashes, sweating, and feelings of anxiety. As a result, it can make it harder to settle your mind and get back to bed.
Using a sound machine, one that plays white noise or rain can be a calming stimulus to get your heart rate down and to get your mind off the vivid dream. A simple noise distraction can help you refocus your attention on something more calming or drown out the noise altogether, to help you wind down.
3. Journal your thoughts
If you keep replaying situations or stressors over and over again during the middle of the night, you may find journaling a helpful solution.
Journaling your dreams, thoughts, to-do lists, and stressors will allow your body to decompress and relieve anxiety. Putting your thoughts on paper may help you regain control of your mind so that you can get back to bed.
4. Deep Breathing Exercises
Deep breathing exercises are a form of mindfulness and meditation that can allow our body time to re-group, re-connect, and calm our heart rates.
Deeply breathe in through your mouth, completely filling your lungs… Then slowly release all breath and muscles completely. Repeat 5-10 times.
5. Avoid triggers or scary content before bed
Try to remove content or triggest that may induce bad dreams. For example, try to avoid horror films right before bed. Instead, turn on comedy or feel-good movies before bed instead. Keeping negativity and content that may trigger a negative experience.
6. Know when to seek professional support
If you are constantly struggling with nightmares or night terrors, it may be time to talk to a trained sleep doctor or mental health coach that can accurately diagnose and treat your condition.
It is okay to ask for help if at-home/ homeopathic treatments are not working. Medication and other health conditions may be contributing to sleep disturbances and nightmares that you and a medical professional can discuss together.