Most of us have had nightmares at least once in our lives. Up to one in 20 adults complain about them, and that’s only counting the ones who are willing to admit it and recall their dreams. Nightmares can be disturbing and they can disturb our sleep. This brings about all sorts of negative consequence for our health and happiness.
Many people feel like there’s not much they can do about their nightmares. However, that isn’t necessarily true. To overcome nightmares, though, it’s first necessary to understand them.
What are Nightmares?
Nightmares are vivid, disturbing dreams. Some of them represent obvious threats, like violence, against which we are supposed to fight. Others may not seem disturbing when you remember the visuals, but they felt awful to experience.
Whether or not it’s the image that is scary or something else, nightmares are very vivid. They make people feel negative emotions like fear, anger, helplessness, overwhelm, and pain, and these feelings often linger long after the sleeper has woken.
Common nightmares include running away from something terrifying but knowing you’re going too slow, being in a situation where you have to fight but being unable to do so, or feeling like you are falling and falling without ever hitting the ground. Other nightmares may include revisiting a traumatic event, especially one from childhood.
Nightmares occur during REM sleep and are different from night terrors, in that night terrors usually focus on an emotion without a visual dream. Most people who experience night terrors don’t remember them at all, while many of us remember our nightmares for quite a while after we have them.
What Causes Nightmares?
Many times, nightmares occur without any particular cause. There’s a good chance that we have them in order to prepare ourselves to face threats. However, the threats in question are ones our ancestors faced, not that we usually encounter today. Evolutionary biologists theorize that nightmares helped prime the body and brain for reality. This means that having a nightmare is basically practice in developing our fight or flight reflexes.
There is also a likely genetic link to nightmares. This means that, if your parents or grandparents had a lot of nightmares, you’re more likely to have them, too. Research hasn’t determined which genes or gene combinations cause them, only that they seem to run in families. This makes sense, as many other sleep disorders are also genetically linked.
This is all interesting, but not terribly useful when it comes to trying to eliminate nightmares. Fortunately, there are some factors that seem to be tied to nightmare frequency. If any of these are true for you, eliminating them may help lower the number of nightmares you have, too.
- People with PTSD and head injuries are more likely to have nightmares.
- Late night eating is positively correlated with nightmares.
- Certain medications raise your chance of having nightmares. These include medications that change your brain chemistry, including those taken for conditions like anxiety and depression, as well as narcotics. Certain blood pressure medications also seem to cause nightmares.
- Sleep deprived people have more nightmares than their well-rested counterparts.
- People who have certain sleep disorders, like restless leg syndrome and sleep apnea, are also more likely to have nightmares.
- Nightmares are tied to excess stress and change in daily life. Thus, first responders, like police and firefighters, are more likely to have them. So is anyone undergoing a major life change, as well as those who have witnessed trauma.
- People who ruminate, or go over negative experiences repeatedly in their minds, are likely to struggle with nightmares.
- Those who make everything a catastrophe, whether they do it with negative experiences in daily life or with the nightmares themselves, struggle more with nightmares than those who don’t.
Conquer Your Nightmares
While stopping nightmares entirely might be impossible, especially if you struggle with them regularly, there are things you can do to reduce the number of them that you experience and lower the intensity of the ones you still have. Here are some ideas that should help you get the sleep you need without the dreams that terrify you.
- Relax before bedtime. It’s easy to ruminate on everything that has gone wrong during the day, especially as you’re trying to fall asleep. However, doing this won’t help you get better rest. Instead, try to let go of the worries, frustrations, and negative experiences that cause you so much stress at bedtime. Think about the positive things that happened to you during the day, practice progressive relaxation, or imagine yourself in a peaceful, relaxing place that makes you happy. If you are so focused on the negative parts of your day that you can’t separate from them enough to take these steps, at least focus on what you are learning as you walk through difficult things.
- Rid your life of negativity. This doesn’t just mean putting a positive spin on negative things. Instead, take a hard look at your life and the way you act in it. Are you behaving in a way that is causing some of your negative experiences? For instance, if you worry about money a lot at bedtime, look at your spending. Do you need all those clothes or several lattes every day? If you can change your life so that you experience fewer stressors and negative things, you won’t have as much to worry about as you’re falling to sleep.
- Don’t catastrophize the nightmares you have or have had. Some nightmares contain horrible feelings, images, or sensations. However, nightmares don’t predict the future. Your dreams aren’t telling you the truth about what has happened or what is going to happen. A dream is just that: a dream. It can make you feel awful, but it doesn’t mean that things are actually going to be awful. So let it be a dream, process your feelings, and move on. Don’t let your nightmare add to your negativity.
- Be honest about your mental habits. Do you ruminate or catastrophize regularly? Since these behaviors are closely tied to nightmares, you may be making things worse for yourself. Do whatever you need to do to stop these behaviors. Write about your feelings and your stressors in a journal, talk to a friend, or find a therapist who can help you change your thought processes. Minimizing or eliminating these behaviors can help you not only get rid of your nightmares, but can also help you grow into a more positive, well-rounded person.
- Talk to your doctor. If you have good mental habits and you’re not under any excessive stress, it’s time to talk to your doctor. Some people are ashamed to do this, but many nightmares have an underlying medical cause. Your doctor can test your for the sleep disorders that are tied to nightmares and help you evaluate your medications to see if any of them may be the culprit. Handling these issues can help you get the sleep you need.
You don’t have to struggle with nightmares forever. It can take some time to make meaningful changes in your life, but it’s worth the effort to sleep better and feel better about your life. Starting today may not make a difference by tonight (though it could!), but why waste one more day struggling with negative thoughts and feelings?