7 Ways To Prevent Nightmares You May Not Know
You may say a movie will "give you nightmares," and that's fine. But until you've actually been woken up at night in a cold sweat more than a handful of times, you won't know how stressful the threat of bad dreams actually is. Figuring out how to stop nightmares can seem pointless, but luckily there are a few tips and tricks you can use to keep them at bay.
Joel Schwartz, psychologist in Rolling Hills Estates, CA, tells Bustle that the DSM-V definition of a nightmare includes "dysphoric content" — imagery or themes that are frightening, sad, or stressful — that is remembered after waking up. Also, Dr. Schwartz adds, nightmares involve an effort to avoid the threats within the dream, and a jolting wakeup from later stages of sleep. Everyone has them. Some just happen to be more stressful than others.
Sleep is one of the subjects that still confounds scientists. "Sleep and dreaming are areas of the mind that are incredibly complicated, so studying them is not easy,” Dr. Sal Raichbach, licensed clinic social worker (LCSW) at Ambrosia Treatment Center tells Bustle. Because of this murkiness, it ends up being up to the individual experiencing the symptoms to decide whether they need help. “There is no objective delineation between problematic and non-problematic nightmares. It is wholly up to the person experiencing them to determine if they are a problem," Dr. Schwartz explains.
Unfortunately, it's next-to impossible to stop having nightmares for good. But it's not hopeless to try to get them to dissipate. “While not all nightmares are preventable, there are definitely some things you can do to make their occurrence less likely," Chris Brantner, Certified Sleep Science Coach at SleepZoo.com, tells Bustle.
Here are seven unexpected things you can do to prevent nightmares, according to experts.
1. Make Sure They Aren't Being Caused By An Underlying Problem
If you are being treated for a mental health condition, it's important to tell your doctor or therapist if you're having troublesome nightmares, too.
"Mental health conditions like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), general anxiety disorder, and substance abuse can all contribute to the frequency and intensity of nightmares," Dr. Raichbach says. And if you aren't already in treatment, you might look at your nightmares as an opportunity to address some more serious things troubling you in your waking life. If there is one, you'll want to treat the underlying problem first, and then your nightmares. If there's something in your life you aren't addressing, it's possible that these dreams are a clue.
2. Review Your Medications
This is another example about why you should talk to your healthcare providers about all symptoms, not just the obvious ones. It's possible that your nightmares could be a treatable side effect associated with a prescription medicine you're on.
"Certain prescriptions, such as anti-depressants and heart medications, can sometimes cause nightmares as a side effect," Dr. Raichbach explains. "If you are experiencing recurring nightmares and you take these medications, talk to your doctor to discuss alternatives." Sometimes, a simple answer actually is the best one, even in mental health.
3. Try Not To Eat Before Bed
This is annoying, since night snacks taste so great, but cutting down on eating too close to bed time might actually really help with your nightmares.
"If you go to bed with a full stomach, it can lead to nightmares," Brantner says. "This is because the extra food boosts the metabolism and body temperature as the body begins digesting it. It's thought that this increases brain activity as well, which leads to more crazy dreams." It's kind of unfair that this means no more working on your night cheese (at least temporarily), but it's worth it to get the chance at a better night's sleep.
4. Drink Less Alcohol
Another bummer. But fighting nightmares is serious business, ok?
Basically, if you want a respite from some of your most stressful nights, a break from alcohol is probably a good idea. "Most dreaming occurs during REM sleep. Alcohol can suppress REM throughout most of the night," Brantner says. "Towards the end of the night when the alcohol has been processed in your body, your brain will naturally try to catch up on REM. This causes your brain to engage in almost a REM sprint, which can result in some wild, scary alcohol-induced dreams." The morning after drinking is difficult enough — no one needs the night to be awful too.
5. Get Enough Sleep
This one is ironic. And not in an Alanis Morisette kind of way. In an actual, adult, unfair way. But it makes sense if you think about it.
“Make sure you're getting enough sleep," Brantner says. "[...] Sleep deprivation has been linked to a number of ill mental and physical health effects. It can also cause nightmares. Like most issues with sleep, the relationship is troublesome. Sleep deprivation can cause nightmares, which can then lead to less sleep. It's a vicious cycle." Getting better at sleep hygiene and practicing some good nighttime self-care might help make things a bit easier in this regard.
6. Keep Regular Bedtime And Wakeup Times
Sleep experts tend to agree that steady bedtimes and wake up times are good for you. It might mess with your weekend plans, but it might make the "in school with no underpants" dreams go away.
"Anything that disrupts the normal rhythm of sleep has the ability to cause everything from insomnia, to sleepwalking to nightmares," Dr. Alex Dimitriu, psychiatrist & sleep medicine expert, tells Bustle. "Essentially, anything that alters sleep stability has the capability of making us remember our dreams, and sometimes nightmares." So while your yo-yo sleep schedule is making you cumulatively sleep-deprived, it's also increasing the chances that you remember why you jolted up at night. So try setting a bedtime and seeing how things go.
7. Find Ways To Destress In Daily Life
The science of the mind is tricky, but experts agree, you take your daytime stresses with you at night. So the best nightmare prevention actually happens in the middle of your day.
“The best way to reduce nightmares is to reduce stress and anxiety in waking life," Dr. Schwartz says. "Exercise, mediate, surround [yourself] with loved ones, work on relationships, talk through negative emotions instead of repressing them, and do work that brings joy, meaning, and a sense of accomplishment." Those sound like good goals already, and they might make your life easier, so why not try?
In the end, it's up to you to decide what to do about your bad dreams. And it's not your fault if they don't go away with interventions like these. “Nightmare disorders are real, and if you find that your dreams are affecting too much of your waking world, consider talking to a professional," Backe says. And if the metaphoric recurring giant frog is just a little pesky, then a little less wine and a little more alarm clock action might help.