How To Stop Bad Dreams In 7 Steps, Because Nightmares Are No Fun
Most of us grapple with nightmares as kids — but becoming an adult doesn't automatically make us stop having bad dreams. In fact, researchers estimate that three-quarters of all of our dreams are nightmares, even if we don't live anywhere near Elm Street — we just usually don't remember our dreams after we wake up. And if you're one of the five to 10 percent of adults who have at least more than one nightmare a month, our human tendency to dream something horrible is more than just a quirky fact — it's a real and practical problem that can leave us sleepless, irritable, unproductive, and worst of all, afraid of naps.
When we were toddlers, nightmares were a fact of life — some studies estimate that up to 50 percent of children aged three to six have regular nightmares. Those stats tend to lower as we age, but in times of great stress, or when something about our lives changes, we can sometimes start having regular nightmares again as adults.
So what do you do when your dreamscape has gone from "Mr. Sandman" to "Enter Sandman"? Here are seven tips to help you get a handle on your bad dreams, and go back to having that one with Channing Tatum and Alexander Skarsgard that we're not going to tell your boyfriend about.
1. Talk To Your Doctor About Your Meds
SSRI antidepressants can make an amazing impact our waking lives — but they can have an impact our sleeping lives, as well. Many patients who have recently begun taking SSRIs report nightmares and especially vivid dreams; other medicines associated with nightmares include tri-cyclic antidepressants, beta blockers, anti-Parkinson's medications, and some sedatives. Some people have also anecdotally reported that B6 and B12 supplements have led them to have extremely vivid dreams and nightmares.
Of course, sometimes a medication's importance in your life is non-negotiable, and it is worth just sucking it up and coping with the side effects. But if consistent nightmares are starting to take their toll on you, tell your doctor and talk about possibly switching to a different but similar medication.
2. Run Some White Noise
Often, when we dream, our brains incorporate stimuli that is happening around us but isn't jarring enough to wake us — and thus, a car horn in the distance is transformed into an intruder ringing your doorbell, or an inquisitive poke from your cat becomes a needle stab from a mad scientist intent on making you part of his human millipede.
You can't control what your unconscious brain does with stimuli once it turns up. But you can try to beat this system by taking as much control as possible of the sensory stimuli present in the room where you sleep. And a great place to start is sound.
Choose a calming sound to play as you sleep, from a white noise app or album. It's not a guarantee, but the sound of soft surf, humming crickets, or another natural noise that soothes you may make your brain chill out a bit.
3. Write About Something Good
Journaling is good for stress and anxiety, there's no doubt about it — but while hashing out our problems in a journal during the daytime can help us find insights and relief, writing our negative thoughts and experiences in a journal right before we sleep can actually make us focus on those thoughts as we go to bed.
Instead, try writing before bed about the positive experiences and emotions you felt during the day, no matter how small they were — this can help put you in a more positive headspace, and you might be able to stay there all night.
4. Don't Read Or Watch Something Scary Before Bed
Bedtime is often the only time of day we have free to indulge in the really frivolous things that we really love. But for some of us, there's a catch — all the things that we really love are spooky. As a horror movie devotee and habitual reader of some creepy Reddit boards, I have long assumed that reading something scary before bed couldn't possibly impact our dreams — I mean, it almost sounds like it makes too much sense, right?
Obviously, I was deluding myself in the name of watching Scream one more time. The final things we do before we fall asleep, be they reading a scary message board or watching an episode of The Walking Dead, can influence what goes on in our dreams. So if you're suffering from bad dreams, try to avoid the scary stuff when you're powering down.
But if you absolutely, positively can't imagine falling asleep without reading some Clive Barker, 1. you are an exhausting human being, and 2. at least try to give yourself a few minutes after you finish reading, before going to bed, when you focus on positive thoughts and imagery. Visualize a soothing place — a happy spot from your childhood, a great vacation locale, a favorite level from Animal Crossing — and try to focus on it as you go to bed. But seriously? Put the Books of Blood away after 9 p.m. and read a frickin' magazine, dude.
5. Analyze Your Dreams
If you've been having a recurring nightmare about tartar sauce, electroshock therapy, and former Russian president Boris Yeltsin, odds are that it's not random — there's probably symbolism in your dream related to something that you're struggling with in your life.
If you have a chronic nightmare, experts recommend that you engage in a process called "rescripting," where you re-imagine the dream while you're awake, so it takes a positive turn. In fact, 70 percent of nightmare sufferers who have rehearsed positive endings to their chronic nightmares reported some relief. Therapists also recommend that you consciously look for the dream's connection to your waking life, which might help you stop fixating on whatever your brain is fixating on.
6. Paint Your Nightmare
Maybe you can't verbally express how your reoccurring nightmare makes you feel. Hey, that's more than fine. Dreams aren't based in logic, so you don't necessarily need logic to combat them. If you can't talk about your nightmare, try painting or drawing it. It doesn't even have to be a realistic depiction of what happened — you can just do an impressionistic painting of how the nightmare makes you feel, and potentially feel some relief/have some very unique images for next year's holiday cards.
7. Seek Professional Help
If you're having a rough emotional time during the daylight, it makes sense that you'd have a rough time at night, too. A lot of psychological issues — like PTSD and borderline personality disorder — cause sufferers to have frequent vivid nightmares. Problematic psychological patterns, like obsessive rumination of negative thoughts, have been known to make nightmares worse. So if you're struggling, let your bad dreams be a wake-up call — seeing a therapist could really help you.
I mean, if nothing else, wouldn't it be nice to have someone who's obligated to listen to you recount every last details of that Yeltsin-tartar sauce dream? Because your friends are sick of hearing about it.
Images: New Line Cinema, Giphy (7)