For those who experience them, nightmares are horrific and terrifying thing to endure. In some cases they can feel incredibly real (sometimes hyper-real), and can get under our skin in a psychological way that stays with us all day.
They feel far more terrifying than anything we've encountered in the real world and they can cause an almost physical reaction that can cause us to sit up in bed sweating, screaming and maybe even feeling ill. This can take the joy out of sleeping and make us almost afraid to close our eyes – especially in the aftermath of one. They can also be distressing for those around us and generally they are something that can cause quite a lot of distress for everyone if they become regular.
Unfortunately there are no hard and fast ways to guarantee you stop having nightmares, and different cases of nightmare will be caused by different things. However the good news is that there are however ways to reduce the occurrence of nightmares and to make yourself much less likely to encounter them. Here we will look at some things you can try.
Often nightmares are merely a symptom of stress during the day; if you're stressed during the day then it only stands to reason that you would be stressed in your thoughts during the night. Consider your nightmare a sign that all is not well in that case and then try and identify what the causes of stress in your daily life are. If you can address these then you will be able to reduce the likelihood of nightmares during the night. If your causes of stress are not things that you can change or confront, then seeing a therapist might be a good way to help you deal with them more effectively. Alternatively you could just try getting away for a while by going on holiday.
Illness and particularly fever is another common cause of nightmares and here your body's distress is reflected in your dreams. This will hopefully just pass, but in the meantime you can make sure that you are comfortable and a good temperature and make sure to take medication such as painkillers before you doze off. Bear in mind that sometimes nightmares about the body can be your body's way of telling you that you are ill or have an injury, so you should look into whether this is in fact the case.
Various drugs and medications can cause nightmares as side effects and so if you are on medication you may wish to consult your doctor and to consider swapping to another course. If you use recreational drugs however then this will be very likely to be causing the nightmares and that is just one more reason to stop. Likewise alcohol and even smoking can cause you to have nightmares so it's a good idea to avoid these.
Don't go straight to bed while you're wide awake if you've spent the day watching scary films, being very busy, or stressing about various things. This way you will go to bed on that train of thought and this will be likely to lead you into a nightmare. Instead then give yourself an hour or so where you purposefully relax and de-stress. Reading a book is a great way to do this, and particularly if it's a positive and funny story.
Watch Your Diet
What you eat can affect your dreams just as drugs can – remember that food interacts with your body in a variety of different ways just like drugs do. Make sure then that you watch your diet carefully and avoid things like caffeine that can cause your mind to race, carbs that can give you too much extra energy, and things that are hard to digest that can cause you to have disturbed dreams.
Go to the Toilet
It sounds very simple, but it's a good precaution to take. A common form of physical stress when you are sleeping is needing the toilet and that can find its way into our dreams in a variety of different ways – sometimes as nightmares.
Analyze Your Dream
If you subscribe to the Freudian/psychodynamic school of psychology, then the belief is that dreams are our unconscious thoughts and desires rising to the surface (Freud called dreams the 'royal road to the unconscious mind') and that it is only when we have acknowledged and confronted these thoughts that we can move on and forget them. Try to think of any hidden messages that might be in those dreams and metaphors – could your dreams represent something else? What's going on in your life at the moment? What do you associate these dreams with? Look for common themes and patterns and try to identify the cause. If nothing else though, just examining your dream and looking at it objectively can make you see just how ridiculous it was and how there's really nothing to be afraid of. Nightmares are scary because we aren't thinking straight, but there are almost always gaping flaws in the logic and the plots and the villains of the piece are very rarely anything to be afraid of and when you hear it out loud this can take that fear away. 'I was being chased by this kind of horrible cat....'
Talk About Your Dream/Draw Your Dream
If analyzing the dream on your own isn't enough then talking to someone else and getting a second opinion can help. Again they can help you to laugh about it and can help to critique it, but at the same time they will also be able to help you see things you might have missed such as connections to your real life.
Disturbed sleep and light sleep is when we remember most of our dreams and that includes nightmares. Try to remember the last time you had a dream – in all likelihood it will have been when you set the alarm on snooze and went back to sleep. The same goes for nightmares, so just make sure you get heavy deep sleep and you probably won't be woken by as many dreams.
As mentioned already, various forms of physical and psychological stress can manifest itself as nightmares when you are asleep and that means things like illnesses or even needing the toilet. At the same time your sleeping self might interpret a flashing light as some kind of siren or alien, or a cool breeze against your skin might arouse you and make you feel more stressed. Make sure then that your environment is entirely free of such things – that it is completely dark and that it is very warm.
Lucid dreams are dreams where you become aware that you are sleeping and then thus have the ability to wake up out of that dream or to even better – begin controlling that dream and directing it. This can of course help you to avoid nightmares and make them less scary so it is something worth practicing. To try and accomplish this ability, you should try to recognize common themes in your dreams that might act as warning signs that you are in fact asleep – this is particularly useful for recurring nightmares. When you notice this repeating itself – you will hopefully realize you're dreaming. Another strategy is to try doing 'reality tests' throughout the day such as pinching yourself so that it becomes habit. Then hopefully you will do this in your dream and this time the reality will fail the test. Now in theory you can give your nightmare a happy ending.