Every one of us gets nightmares from time to time, with subjects ranging from falling off a cliff to being chased by terrifying creatures. According to the American Sleep Association (ASA), around 80 to 90 percent of people report having nightmares at some point in their lifetime, and around five percent of the U.S. population is believed to struggle with chronic nightmares. Most of us who experience nightmares on the regular would probably like our nightmares to stop, but how do you stop nightmares from happening?
“Nightmare-ridden sleep can stem from multiple causes, including trauma and poor lifestyle habits. It might come as no surprise to you that sleep issues are the most commonly reported side effect of PTSD,” John Shegerian, the co-founder and CEO of Som Sleep, tells Bustle. “Too many stimulants close to bedtime can also impact your sleep: Alcohol, caffeine, nicotine, and even looking at your smartphone can overstimulate your nervous system, and result in nightmares.”
Whatever the cause of your bad dreams, there’s no denying nightmares can disturb your healthy sleep schedule, leaving you fatigued the following day. Luckily, there are ways to up your chances of sleeping soundly throughout the whole night. Here are seven tips you can try to reduce chronic nightmares.
Try Lucid Dreaming
Dr. David Brodner, founder and principle physician at the Center for Sinus, Allergy and Sleep Wellness in Palm Beach, Florida, tells Bustle that lucid dreaming can help stop a nightmare in its tracks. In short, lucid dreaming is when you are aware you are dreaming, which allows you to have more control over the content of the dream. As Dr. Michelle Carr, a researcher at Swansea University Sleep Laboratory, explained in an article for Psychology Today, "Once lucid within the nightmare, the dreamer can realize that there is no real danger, even despite lingering fear. At this point, the dreamer can attempt to break free of habitual responses, instead consciously choosing how to respond."
Lay Off Your Smartphone
Scrolling through Instagram right before bed may be tempting, but experts suggest to disconnect from electronics if you want to avoid chronic nightmares or other sleep disturbances. "Power down electronics one hour before bedtime. The blue light emitted from screens can wreak havoc on your sleep," says Shegerian. "If you can’t quite bring yourself to put the phone down, be sure to put your phone in night mode, and think about investing in a pair of blue light blocking glasses."
What's more, while it may be tempting to play on your phone to decompress after you have a nightmare, Shegerian says it's counterintuitive. "You may want to check the time or scroll through social media to soothe yourself from your nightmare, but the light from your phone will trick your brain into thinking it’s morning, and make it even more difficult for you to fall asleep," he explains. Try reading a (paper) book if you can't fall back asleep immediately, or meditating.
Try A Natural Sleep Supplement
Coffee and other caffeinated drinks are out of the picture, but certain herbal teas — such as chamomile and lavender — can actually encourage restful sleep and quell your anxiousness.
If a cup of tea isn't, well, your cup of tea, Shegerian suggests you can opt to take a sleep aid. "Som Sleep is scientifically advanced to ready your body and mind for sleep. It uses melatonin, L-Theanine, and GABA, and promotes relaxation so you can calm your mind to achieve natural, restorative sleep," he says. Plain old melatonin can also help you fall back asleep naturally, too.
Exercise Throughout The Day
Another tip Dr. Brodner suggests to help nix nightmares — especially those caused by stress or anxiety — is to expend pent-up energy throughout the day. Try meditating, exercising, practicing self-care, or even work on changing your negative thought patterns while you're awake to reduce the frequency of bad dreams your subconscious stirs up at night.
Try Focused Breathing
Nightmares often invoke visceral fear and franticness, so reconnecting with your body through breathing techniques could be an effective way to not only prevent bad dreams, but calm down if you wake up from one in the middle of the night.
"Try the 4/7/8 breathing exercise to help soothe yourself back to sleep [after a nightmare]," says Shegerian. "Exhale completely through your mouth before you start. Close your mouth, and inhale through your nose for a mental count of four. Hold your breath for a count of seven, then exhale through your mouth for a count of eight. Repeat this four times; this will help you relieve tension, and stress to fall back asleep quickly."
Consider Therapy Or Medication
If your recurring nightmares are part of an anxiety disorder or PTSD, it's worth discussing the possibility of therapy or medication with your healthcare team. Image Rehearsal Therapy (IRT) is a type of cognitive behavioral therapy that is specifically designed to make chronic nightmares seem less scary for people with PTSD, with the help of a trained mental health professional. According to the Mayo Clinic, "imagery rehearsal therapy involves changing the ending to your remembered nightmare while awake so that it's no longer threatening. You then rehearse the new ending in your mind." Keeping a dream journal may also be part of IRT.
Once you identify the root of your chronic nightmares, whether it has to do with lifestyle habits or changes in your mental health, it may become easier to stop nightmares before they happen. By utilizing some of these expert-approved tricks and talking with your physician, your nightmares no longer have to disturb your nightly snooze sesh.