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Stress

How to Stop Bad Dreams and Nightmares and Have a Good Sleep?

One out of every two adults has nightmares on occasion. (*)

In sleep studies, people regularly report dreams with negative emotions such as anxiety and fear.

However, nightmares can also be healing. In fact, nightmares are dreams that cry out for your attention. They inform you that things need to be addressed. This is especially the case for those who have survived traumatic events.

In this article, you’ll learn how to manage your nightmares effectively and even use them to heal yourself and how to sleep better at night and wake up rested.

Ready? Let’s get started!

What Are Nightmares?

Nightmares are disturbing dreams that rattle you awake from a deep sleep or leave you feeling anxious or depressed.

Nightmares tend to occur most often during rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. Since periods of REM sleep become progressively longer as the night progresses, you may have nightmares most often in the early morning hours.

Why Do We Have Nightmares?

Nightmares are often caused by imagery of our fears and unresolved traumatic experiences.

It’s important to note that dreams are our mind’s way to process experiences and make sense of the situations we have lived through. In that sense, dreams help us release excess fear and resolve our life issues.

However, when the fear gets out of control, it can turn into a terrifying nightmare. In this case, our overwhelming fears and intense emotions don’t get resolved within the dream story.

That is why nightmares represent red flags that point to unresolved issues within our psyche that need healing.

By consciously working on our unresolved issues, we can complete the process of resolution and healing.

What Happens When We Ignore Nightmares?

Nightmares are like our difficult emotions, the more you ignore them, the more intense they become. This can make some people afraid to sleep, which eventually leads to sleep deprivation, exhaustion, depression, and even suicidal thoughts.

Note that some nightmares should not be worked on alone. If your daily functioning is disrupted by nightmares, please get professional help immediately. Talk to your doctor or see a therapist who works with nightmares and trauma.

Does every nightmare reflect a personal issue?

Nightmares are not always about personal issues and don’t always require us to investigate their message. This is especially the case when:

The nightmare is triggered by medication or drugs.

The nightmare is caused by physical pain or discomfort that infiltrates our dreams and causes unpleasant imagery.

The nightmare is caused by an uneasy gut (e.g. eating spicy food or gluten or drinking coffee before bedtime).

The nightmare is triggered by a horror movie we watched before bedtime.

Your Dreams Are Unique

Your dreams reflect your own life experiences, desires, and associations. This is why only you can identify what your dream means. A dog will have a very different meaning for a pet lover than for someone who has Cynophobia (fear of dogs).

How to Stop Bad Dreams and Nightmares?

When you consciously engage with your dreams or nightmares while awake, you help empower your dreaming self (and your waking self) and supply it with the resources it needs to change its response to your dreams in the future.

#1. Increase Your Feelings of Safety And Security

Use your breath as an anchor to the present moment and a way to feel safe.

1. Inhale for a count of four.

2. Hold your breath for a count of four.

3. Then, exhale for a count of six.

Keep this 4-4-6 rhythm until it feels easy and natural.

Keep breathing without actively counting and as you breathe in, repeat in your mind, “I am safe.”

As you hold your breath, allow yourself to feel that sense of safety spread throughout your body from head to toe.

As you breathe out, repeat in your mind, “I release fear.”

Once you feel completely calm, make an intention to use your breath to soothe yourself whenever you need to, in waking life and in sleep.

#2. Recall The Dream

Becoming aware of the nightmare is the first step to uncovering its message and addressing it.

If you find it difficult to recall your nightmares, try the following techniques to improve your dream recall:

1. Start keeping a dream journal where you write down the event, thoughts, and emotions related to your dreams. Keep the journal right by your bed. You may also choose to record your dreams on a recording device.

2. Try to wake up naturally without an alarm clock, or wake up slowly to soothing music. This will help you stay in your sleep position as you go over your dreams.

3. If you wake up in the night, ask yourself, “What was I dreaming about?” Answering that question will make it easier for you to recall the dream in the morning.

4. Give your nightmare a title to make it easier to identify it when you review your journal.

5. Write down any memories the nightmares bring up for you. Also include any relevant pre-nightmare details, such as going through a stressful time, having an argument with a loved one the night before, etc.

If the nightmare was very upsetting, take a few minutes to bring your attention back to the present moment and soothe yourself.

#3. Uncover The Message Behind The Nightmare and Transform It

This involves identifying what the dream is about and what it wants to tell us.

Practice 1. Reenter the nightmare

This practice will help you feel safer and more in control of your nightmare.

This is a technique based on “active imagination,” which was developed by Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung.

It is important to feel in control and safe when working with difficult nightmares. Reentering your dream or nightmare helps you explore the message it has while remaining in charge of the process.

To do this, use the following steps:

1. Sit in a comfortable position and take slow, deep breaths.

2. Create a safe space in your mind and when you feel ready, bring your nightmare into that space.

3. Remind yourself that you can stop this process at any moment by opening your eyes and paying attention to the surrounding environment (e.g., the view outside the window, or an object in the room)

4. Look at the images of your nightmare. Run the nightmare like a movie and notice any details. Note any emotions and thoughts you had during the nightmare.

5. Now, think about your ideal reaction and how you wish to change the nightmare story. For example, instead of running away from whatever was chasing you, maybe you could turn around and calmly face it. You prefer to protect yourself by imagining a bubble of light surrounding you or you may imagine yourself sending love and light to scary figures.

Other creative ways to respond to a nightmare might include:

Offering the nightmares aggressors a gift that helps shift the energy of the nightmare and bring a sense of peace.

Have magic powers that help you remove yourself from danger, such as teleportation.

Calmly ask the nightmare aggressors, “Do you have a message for me?”

Fight the nightmare aggressor by materializing a sword or a magic power that you use to defeat the enemy.

Call for help and imagine your superhero or power animal rescuing you.

Why Is It Helpful to Transform the Nightmare Story?

Sleep researcher Dr. Barry Krakow found that rehearsing a happier nightmare outcome has the effect of decreasing nightmare frequency.

Changing the nightmare story helps us feel less helpless and safer. By rehearsing a different ending, we directly communicate to the unconscious mind that we have options and that we can face danger using different resources.

Practice 2. Connect Your Nightmare To Reality

This practice will help you investigate any connection between your nightmare and your past experiences.

1. Once the dream feels less scary, reenter your dream again using the steps described previously.

2. Connect to the most powerful emotion in your nightmare (fear, grief, shame, loneliness, etc.). Remind yourself that you can stop this process whenever you like by opening your eyes.

3. Notice where you feel the emotion in your body. Do you feel tightness in your throat? Heaviness in your chest? Tension in your gut?

4. Ask yourself when in the past did you have these same emotions. Answering this question will help you get closer to understanding the message of the nightmare.

Practice 3. Free Association

Free association is one of the techniques Austrian neurologist Sigmund Freud used with dream images in order to explore the unconscious.

1. Choose the main image, emotion, figure, thought, or anything that stood out from your nightmare.

2. In your journal, write down any associations, memories, or thoughts that can be related to your chosen nightmare element.

3. If you feel stuck, consider what would the chosen nightmare element say if you’re to ask it what message does it have for you. Close your eyes and ask, “What do you want me to know?”

Practice 4. Become The Nightmare Aggressor

This technique is based on Gestalt therapy, which was developed by Fritz Perls in the 1950s. The idea is that we are the makers of our own dreams and that every element of the dream is part of us.

You begin to understand the key element of your nightmare’s point of view and message by putting yourself in their place in your mind or by placing yourself across from an empty chair and speaking with the voice of the nightmare aggressor, moving from your own chair into the empty one to do so.

1. Sit in a comfortable position with your eyes closed. Calm your thoughts by focusing on your breath.

2. Bring your nightmare into your mind’s eye and identify the key element of your nightmare.

3. Try becoming that element by speaking from their point of view, without judgment. You may even try Perls’s technique of moving to an empty chair to do this.

4. If you feel stuck, try to begin with “I feel…” or, “I need…” or, “I want to…”

5. Now reply to the nightmare aggressor or ask any questions you have, such as “What message do you have for me?” or, “How can I help you?”

6. Keep the conversation going until you have all your answers.

#4. Act on The Wisdom of The Dream

Nightmares can warn us of unhelpful behaviors, unhealthy situations, or toxic relationships in our lives. You can use this information to make a positive change.

This might mean we need to slow down and take care of ourselves, mend or leave a toxic relationship, or even talk to a counselor and address past trauma.

There Is More To Sleep Than Dreaming

Suffering from nightmares can make us dread going to sleep and may lead to sleep deprivation. Rather than having one problem, you end up with two.

It’s important to remind yourself that there is more to sleep than dreaming.

Sleep helps us heal and recuperate. When we sleep, hormones are released and cellular repair is stimulated.

How to Have a Good Sleep

Sleep is vital to our well-being.

But we’re not getting enough of it.

Studies show that, on average, we’re getting between one and two hours less sleep than we were in the 1950s.

The quality of our sleep has a significant impact on our physical and emotional health, personal relationships and professional life.

In fact, a growing body of research is drawing a link between poor sleeping habits and an array of health and psychological issues, such as type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and obesity to anxiety and burnout.

Here are 18 proven, healthy ways to sleep better naturally at night and wake up rested.

How Much Sleep Do We Need?

There is a difference between the amount of sleep we can get by and the amount we need to function optimally.

Just because you’re able to function on 7 or even 6 hours of sleep doesn’t mean an extra hour or two won’t make a huge difference in how well you feel and function.

Sleep requirements vary from person to person, but most adults need 7 to 9 hours of sleep per night to operate at their best. Children, teens, and older adults need even more.

The best way to find out if you’re logging enough sleep hours is to evaluate how you feel as you go about your day.

If you’re meeting your sleep needs, you should feel energetic and alert from the moment you wake up until your regular bedtime.

Average Sleep Needs by Age
AgeHours NeededMay be appropriate
Newborn to 3 months old14 – 17 hrs11 – 19 hrs
4 to 11 months old12 – 15 hrs10 – 18 hrs
1 to 2 years old11 – 14 hrs9 – 16 hrs
3 to 5 years old10 – 13 hrs8 – 14 hrs
6 to 13 years old9 – 11 hrs7 – 12 hrs
14 to 17 years old8 – 10 hrs7 – 11 hrs
Young adults (18 to 25 years old)7 – 9 hrs6 – 11 hrs
Adults (26 to 64 years old)7 – 9 hrs6 – 10 hrs
Older adults (65+)7 – 8 hrs5 – 9 hrs
Source: National Sleep Foundation

Pre-Sleep Routine: How To Have a Good Sleep?

#1. Go To Bed And Wake Up At The Same Time Every Day

A circadian rhythm is the natural, twenty-four-hour internal process that regulates the sleep-wake cycle – our body clock.

Our body clocks are set by external cues, such as daylight, temperature, and eating times.

These rhythms are deeply ingrained within us. They are the product of millions of years of evolution.

Melatonin, a hormone that regulates our sleep, is produced once it’s been dark for long enough.

By keeping regular hours and getting up with the sun, our need to sleep peaks at night, which coincides with our circadian urge to sleep, producing an ideal sleep window.

#2. Cut Back on Blue Light Emitted From Electronic Devices

Blue light, emitted from electronic devices, such as smartphones, TVs, and computers, leads to disrupted and diminished sleep as this light inhibits the production of melatonin and pushes our body clocks later.

If you had to work on your computer a little later, don’t go to bed right away. Stay up for a bit so that your pineal gland can function efficiently and produce enough melatonin now that it’s dark.

If you can’t live without your tech before bedtime, software such as f.lux and Apple’s Night Shift mode, help reduce the amount of blue light by “warming” the color temperature on devices.

But this doesn’t solve the other problem with using electronic devices before bedtime.

#3. Shutdown Technology

Apart from emitting blue light, electronic devices affect our stress levels and capacity to keep our brains alert.

The messages and emails you respond to a few minutes before you go to bed could keep your mind whirring when you’re trying to sleep.

You might even find it hard to sleep when you don’t receive a reply to the message you’ve sent.

Putting a curfew on your emails, messages, and calls at least ninety minutes before bed will help you avoid any potentially stressful situations.

Draft your messages and emails and hold off on sending unit the morning.

#4. Know Your Chronotype (Are You an AMer or a PMer?)

Your chronotype describes your sleeping characteristics—whether you’re a morning or evening person.

Chronotypes are genetic traits.

Do you like staying up late? Do you need an alarm to get you up in the morning? Do you sleep in on the weekend? Then it’s likely that you’re a PMer.

Your chronotype determines the time you go to bed and get up, but also it determines the time when you’re most alert and productive.

AMers wake naturally in the morning, are less likely to feel fatigued during the day, and go to bed reasonably early.

But this variation between AMer and PMer is usually only by a few hours – less than five.

The In-Betweeners

This is a third category of chronotype.

Although most of us live as in-betweeners, regardless of our real chronotype, many of us genuinely are in between.

Why is it important to know your chronotype?

If you’re a PMer and you have to get to work at 9 a.m., you’ll suffer because you are effectively trying to operate in a time zone that’s different from your internal body clock’s.

This negatively affects your performance and productivity.

If you’re a PMer and you get to choose nighttime shifts, your chronotype can work to your advantage.

But if you have to get up early for your work, it’s important to get enough stimulants in the morning to catch-up with the AMers.

Get enough daylight in the morning by opening the curtain and getting ready in daylight. Avoid sleeping in on the weekend to help your body clock adjust.

If you’re an AMer, you’re at your best in the morning, so use this time to get the most important tasks done and leave the more mundane ones for later.

#5. Drink Caffeine Less and Drink Earlier

Caffeine is the world’s most popular performance-enhancing drug. It helps you fight off fatigue and has proven beneficial effects on alertness, concentration, and endurance.

However, high doses of caffeine can make it difficult to get to sleep and more difficult to remain asleep.

In fact, caffeine has a half-life (the time required for a quantity to reduce to half of its initial value) of up to six hours.

So, refrain from drinking caffeine later in the day to help your nocturnal sleep.

But caffeine is also a habit-forming drug.

This means that you will develop a tolerance to it with high daily use and you will need a higher dose to get that hit you want.

The Food and Drug Administration recommends a maximum daily intake of caffeine of 400 milligrams for the average person. To put that in perspective, a home-brewed cup of coffee can contain as much as 200 milligrams.

And then there are the things we consume that we might not be aware contain caffeine, such as soda, chocolate, certain painkillers, and even decaffeinated tea and coffee.

Overstimulating on caffeine means that you’re not using caffeine as a performance enhancer. Instead, you’re using caffeine simply to get yourself to a point from which you can perform.

#6. Keep Your Bedroom Cool Rather Than Warm

In the evening, our body temperature drops naturally as part of our circadian rhythms.

However, central heating, hot-water bottles, and electric blankets can interfere with our body temperature. This can lead to overheating and make you perspire heavily, which can break and disturb your sleep.

Keep your bedroom cool (not cold) by turning off the radiator or turning down the thermostat in the bedroom, in winter.

A warm (not hot) shower can help you raise your body temperature a degree or two before you get into your cooler bed.

In summer, ventilate the room to help keep it a degree or two cooler. If you don’t have air-conditioning, use a fan with a bottle of frozen water placed in front of it.

#7. Switch From Light to Dark

Melatonin (the hormone that regulates sleep) is produced when it’s dark. However, things such as technology (blue light) and powerful lamps interfere with the production of melatonin, which in turn disturbs our sleep.

Dim everything down as you start your pre-sleep routine. Switch to less-powerful lamps with warm-color bulbs or light some candles. If the street lights intrude your bedroom, get curtains or blackout blinds that will effectively keep the light out.

#8. Put Everything in Its Right Place

Before going to bed, make sure that everything is in its right place. This isn’t about cleaning and organizing your house, but rather about making sure that your mind is free of any niggling thoughts about packing your bag in the morning, or remembering that you’re out of milk.

This might involve ironing and hanging up your clothes, packing your bag, doing the dishes, taking out your outfit for tomorrow, putting the recycling by the front door so you don’t forget it.

Doing these simple, non-stimulating tasks will give your mind the peace it needs to sleep soundly.

#9. Download Your Day

After an eventful day, your might find it hard to just stop thinking about your day and replaying the encounters and conversations you’ve had.

This is why downloading your thoughts by journaling for at least 10 minutes before bed.

Start with a list of “what’s on my mind”. Write down any thoughts you have and anything that has worried you or concerned you during that day.

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#10. Make Yourself As Secure As Possible

You’re most vulnerable when you go to sleep, this is why you need to make sure you’re secure before going to sleep.

Locking your doors and windows, or double-checking that they’re locked will help you feel safe and eliminate any unhelpful thoughts, such as “Did I leave the kitchen window open?

#11. Have a Light Exercise

Strenuous exercise before sleep should be avoided because it elevates your heart rate and adrenaline. Moreover, the glaring light and the pounding music in most gyms aren’t exactly ideal for a pre-sleep routine.

Instead have a light exercise – some yoga, stretching exercises, a short walk. This can help raise your body temperature enough to make the transition from warm to cooler when you get into your bed.

#12. Breathe Through Your Nose

Snoring and sleep apnea – in which the individual repeatedly stops breathing and wakes up each time during the night – disrupt our sleep and both issues stem mostly from our breathing through the mouth.

Waking up with a dry mouth suggests you breathe through your mouth when you sleep.

Try putting a nasal strip on your nose to help dilate the nasal passages and encourage breathing through your nose. You can also use nasal dilators that go inside the nose and open up the nasal passages.

Put the product on for a period before you go to bed to get used to it.

Post-Sleep Routine: How to Wake Up Rested, Happy and On Time?

#13. Let Light In

Light is the most important time setter for our body clocks.

But because we’re spending so much time indoors, on the train, in our places of work, we’re not getting our fix of daylight.

Open the curtains as soon as you wake up, eat breakfast in daylight, then go outside.

#14. Use Blue Light Wisely

We are particularly sensitive to the blue light emitted by electronic devices such as computers and smartphones.

Blue light is getting bad press because it can disturb your sleep at night. But it’s not so much that it’s bad light—only badly timed light.

Daylight is full of blue light, so having some blue light during the day is actually good to help you wake up. It suppresses melatonin production and improves alertness and performance.

#15. Take It Slow With Technology

The levels of cortisol—the hormone produced in response to stress—are at their highest shortly after waking. So you don’t want to make them any higher or keep them that high throughout the day.

Make sure your first waking moments aren’t stressful and resist checking your phone right when you wake up.

#16. Don’t Skip Breakfast

Breakfast gives you the fuel you need to start your day. If you’re not used to having breakfast, start with something small, such as a few bites of toast and fruit. Get hydrated too.

Caffeine used in moderation is an acceptable aspect of a post-sleep routine, but make sure you don’t put pressure on the upper limit of 400 milligrams per day.

#17. Exercise

Exercise is a great way to start your day and if you can exercise outdoors, it’s even better.

#18. Give Yourself a Gentle Mental Challenge

Mental stimulation is a gradual process. Simple acts, such as reading a chapter of a book, listening to a podcast, reading the news or listening to the radio on the way to work, can all be great ways to get the brain in gear in the morning.

The Power of the Nap

After lunch, and during the midday period, daytime fatigue kicks in. This is when the Spanish like to indulge with their siestas, while most of the rest of the world goes through it with heavy doses of caffeine in an attempt to get more things done.

Using this time to have an afternoon nap, on the other hand, can maximize your productivity and help you perform better.

In fact, a study conducted at the University of Düsseldorf shows that even very short naps enhance memory processing. Another study conducted by NASA reported, “Naps can maintain or improve subsequent performance, physiological and subjective alertness, and mood.”

A nap between 20 and 30 minutes can help you get the energy you need to get through the rest of your day.

You can take a dose of caffeine beforehand, so that it takes effect toward the end of your nap. Caffeine takes about twenty minutes to affect the body.

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Resources

  • Portions of this article were adapted from the book Sleep: The Myth of 8 Hours, the Power of Naps, and the New Plan to Recharge Your Body and Mind, © 2018 by Nick Littlehales. All rights reserved.
  • Portions of this article were adapted from the book The Art of Transforming Nightmares, © 2021 by Clare R. Johnson. All rights reserved.
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