Nearly everyone has experienced what it’s like to wake up in the middle of the night from a bad dream or nightmare. For most people, experiencing a nightmare is considered relatively rare and an uncommon occurrence. Although an occasional nightmare may cause some feelings of discomfort, it isn’t generally a cause for concern. However, for others, the frequency and severity of nightmares may be more common.
In fact, some individuals may develop a condition known as “nightmare disorder” in which nightmares occur on a regular basis. The problem with nightmares is that they tend to impair overall sleep quality, leaving a person to awaken the following morning feeling tired and anxious. If you frequently experience nightmares, it is recommended to put forth some effort to stop them so that you can get the restful, quality sleep necessary for optimal functioning.
How To Stop Nightmares & Bad Dreams
There is no specific medical protocol for stopping nightmares. In many cases, doctors and sleep experts don’t really know how to treat them. Although sleeping pills may temporarily help with the problem, they do not usually cure it. Before you try some of the suggestions listed below, it is important to attempt to identify any potential triggers or causes of your nightmares.
If you are able to pinpoint a specific factor that may be causing your bad dreams, you can work to correct it. Below is an array of general suggestions that may help you reduce the intensity and severity of nightmares, as well as your ability to cope with them.
- Acceptance: People that experience nightmares sometimes have a difficult time accepting that they may not reflect reality. While some nightmares may be based on a past trauma, many are fragmented bits of randomness from the subconscious. Accepting that the nightmares were a byproduct of the “dream”-state and not reality can be helpful.
- Comfort: Sleep comfortably, don’t stress or strain various parts of your body into an uncomfortable sleeping posture. Some research has found that individuals who sleep in an uncomfortable position are more likely to experience nightmares and bad dreams. If you have an uncomfortable bed or pillow, you may want to shop for something new.
- Conscious thinking: If you experience a nightmare, it is best to bring yourself back to conscious awareness as soon as possible. Briefly you may still feel caught up in the dream upon awakening, but thinking consciously and realizing that the frightening scenario was merely a dream may help by contrasting fantasy with reality.
- Desensitization: This is a technique that is often used in CBT (cognitive-behavioral therapy) that essentially makes a person less fearful of their dreams. When a person is scared or fearful of their nightmare, they are “sensitized” to its effects. In order to turn off this fear response, the patient needs to gradually desensitize themselves to the nightmare. In this form of therapy, a person is exposed to the nightmare and emotional response until it doesn’t bother them.
- Don’t eat before bed: Some science suggests that eating before bed leads a person going to sleep with a triggered metabolic response within the brain. The metabolic response changes brain activity, and thus has potential to cause nightmares. If you can help it, try not to eat at least an hour or two prior to falling asleep.
- Dream catchers (Placebo): While dream catchers don’t actually do anything, if you can get the person to believe that they do, you might get a positive response as a result of a “placebo effect.” The placebo effect is a result of someone believing that something will work so strongly that it works simply because the person’s belief shifted. This method is unlikely to work on educated adults, but may provide children with additional comfort.
- Exposure/Relaxation/Rescripting Therapy (ERRT): The way this technique works should be relatively obvious based on the name. It is an offshoot of IRT therapy, and involves exposure to the nightmare, relaxation techniques (such as progressive relaxation), and conscious re-scripting of the specific nightmare to evoke a more favorable outcome.
- Gratitude: Instead of looking at your phone or thinking about the stress in your life, one technique that may reduce the frequency of nightmares is practicing gratitude. Don’t just think about what you should be grateful for, really reflect on all aspects of your life and embrace the emotional feeling of being thankful. Gratitude tends to elicit positive emotions such as happiness and stimulates parts of your brain that may have been dormant. The stimulation of happier brain regions may help some people with their nightmares.
- Imagery Rehearsal Therapy (IRT): This is a specific type of behavioral treatment for nightmares that involves deliberately rehearsing new dream scenarios. A person will imagine a favorable dream scenario, constantly rehearse it in their mind, and notice improvements in their dreams. The favorable aspect associated with this type of therapy is that it doesn’t require exposure or reflection on the nightmares that previously occurred. There is sufficient scientific evidence to support the usage of this technique.
- Journaling: Every time you have a bad dream, write it down in some sort of sleep journal. Document when you wake up, how you feel, and everything on your mind. By writing your thoughts in a journal, it will help you maintain perspective and realize that the effects of the nightmares are not permanent.
- Neurological restructuring: The brain is extremely plastic, meaning outside influences from the environment can shape the way that it functions. If you consciously program it to change, in many cases it will. When you have bad dreams and wake up, immediately use the power of your brain to reprogram a better ending or a happier scenario. This could lead to other parts of your brain becoming active and better dreams as a result of your programming.
- Nostalgia: Most people focus on how scared they are of nightmares prior to falling asleep. To prevent them from occurring, try focusing on an extremely happy memory. Lay in bed and visualize the entire moment of happiness and feel the wave of positive emotions and happiness that you felt. Do not waiver from the moment by shifting your thinking to the future or comparing it to the past, just get as caught up in that positive experience as you possibly can. This will ensure that you fall asleep feeling happy and grateful that you had such an awesome experience (potentially with people that you love).
- Positive thinking: It has been thought that thinking positive thoughts prior to falling asleep can change brain activation, possibly preventing nightmares. When we think negatively, certain areas of the brain become active. Positive thinking may take some conscious effort, but can actually change brain activation – potentially leading to less bad dreams.
- Position change: There is some evidence supporting the idea that sleeping in uncomfortable postures may lead to nightmares. If you are frequently experiencing nightmares, you may want to experiment with the position in which you sleep. For example, if you normally sleep on your side, try sleeping on your back. If you normally sleep on your back, try sleeping on your side, etc.
- Reduce REM Sleep: The REM (rapid-eye movement) stage of sleep is correlated with dreaming and nightmares. There are certain medications, supplements, and activities that are thought to reduce the amount of REM sleep that you have, thus minimizing your chances of experiencing nightmares.
- Relaxation: It is known that individuals who are highly stressed tend to suffer from more frequent nightmares than those who are relaxed. Prior to falling asleep, take the time to engage in some sort of relaxation exercise. It could be progressive relaxation, self-hypnosis, meditation, deep breathing, biofeedback, etc. Making a conscious effort to relax and essentially mitigate the effects of the sympathetic nervous system (stress response) on the brain can significantly reduce nightmares.
- Sleep experimentation: For some people, something as simple as changing their pre-sleep ritual such as reading instead of watching a horror show may stop nightmares. For others, going to bed at a different time and waking up at a specific time may help change a person’s brain waves and circadian rhythm. You may want to play around with your own sleep schedule and determine what works best.
- Supplements: Certain supplements that are known to reduce REM sleep may help. Other people may find that taking certain supplements to improve their sleep quality may also reduce the frequency of nightmares. If you are going to try various supplements, realize that just because one worked for someone else doesn’t mean you will have the same experience. Experimenting with supplements is subject to individual variation.
- Talk to someone: It may help to talk about your nightmare with someone or your fear. While this could be done in therapy, you could also talk to someone that you care about. Describe your nightmares vividly and talk about why you think they may occur. Sometimes simply getting them “out of your system” instead of keeping them bottled up to yourself can help.
- Treatment for conditions: Treating specific conditions that may be causing the nightmares such as depression, anxiety, and neurodegenerative disorders may be of significant help. Although psychotropic medications may worsen the nightmares, there is also the possibility that these medications could improve them in regards to both severity and intensity.
- Therapy: Seeking help from a psychotherapist may be extremely beneficial if your nightmares stem from some sort of trauma, abusive relationship, or excess stress. You may want to consider invoking the help of a sleep therapist as well depending on the cause of your nightmares.
- Visualization: A very helpful exercise for some individuals is to change their brain activation. When we think about stressful things and unhappy memories, and/or anticipate a nightmare – certain brain regions become primed. In order to combat this, it is recommended to visualize something extremely happy or positive. Feel the emotion of the positivity and visualize yourself feeling great and your thoughts will also shift from scarcity to comfort.
- Withdrawal: In the event that recurrent nightmares are being caused by medications, drugs, and/or supplements, it may be beneficial to evaluate whether the benefits outweigh the side effects. If the drug you are on is interfering with your sleep cycle and causing nightmares, it may be wise to switch to another medication and/or withdraw altogether if the severity of side effects outweighs the benefits. It is important to recognize that during withdrawal, the nightmares may ensue, but will eventually cease once your brain readjusts itself.
Have you figured out how to stop nightmares or bad dreams?
While a majority of people should be able to stop nightmares and/or bad dreams by implementing some of the suggestions above, not everyone will have success. In some cases, nightmares can occur based on highly individualized factors that may be difficult to pinpoint. In other cases, the nightmares could be due to a genetic predisposition.
In any regard, we do know that nightmares are often bothersome and when they occur frequently, they can interfere with our ability to get restful sleep. If you have persistent nightmares and/or bad dreams and haven’t been able to find relief, your best bet would likely be to visit a sleep specialist and possibly a psychotherapist and take further action to determine the root cause.
Many people have their own unique ways for coping with poor sleep and bad dreams. If you have figured out what triggered your specific nightmares and/or what you’ve done to correct the problem, feel free to share your experience in the comments section below. Sharing your particular experience may be of significant help to someone who is currently dealing with something similar.