Some nightmares are quite minor: if you wake up in the morning remembering an unpleasant dream about your boss shouting at you, it’s probably caused by residual stress from the argument you had with him (or wanted to have with him) last week. This is perfectly normal: our dreams reflect what’s going on in our lives, and by some theories our bad dreams express our fears and by doing so they ‘purge’ some of the stress we feel about them.
But some nightmares are overwhelming, and can be terrifying, sinister and recurrent. Far from relieving stress, these night terrors can make us frightened to go to sleep. What can you do about these?
Serious Problems Deserve Professional Help
First of all, if nightmares are more than just a one-off problem for you, or if you’re sleepwalking, or scared to go to sleep, you should absolutely speak to your doctor. Sleepwalking, sleep-deprivation, and their underlying causes can all be dangerous. They can also, in many cases, be treated successfully with medication or counselling.
Watch What You Eat
Watch what you eat. Some foods just don’t digest easily, and eating these two or three hours before you go to bed can cause vivid and distressing dreams. Culprits include cheese (so don’t have that pizza as a midnight snack), meat (which takes a long time to digest), chocolate, sugary snacks, and caffeine. The last three can keep you from being able to sleep at all, or can keep you in a state of light dozing, when very vivid dreams are more likely.
Stress is an unavoidable fact of life, but there are ways of minimising how stress affects you. Moderate exercise releases muscle tension, as do breathing and relaxation exercises. Eat more fruit and vegetables, because stress depletes our vitamin C, and vitamin C combats stress, so by eating more fruits and veg you can avoid a nasty vicious circle where your stress is caused by stress itself.
Have An 'Oasis' To Escape To
Make your bedroom a calm relaxing place to be. Decoration is a matter of personal taste, but light, pastel colours are more conducive to a calm state of mind than bold, bright or cluttered surroundings.
Get a nightlight for your bedside table if you find the dark a bit unsettling. Although bright lights will stop you getting to sleep, or can wake you up in the night, a nice, low nightlight can make your bedroom more cosy and pleasant to sleep in. Many nightlights are made especially for children, but you can find ones for grown-ups in most lighting stores – ones that have plain shades on them instead of cartoon characters (unless this appeals to your inner child). Or you can get a bedside lamp with a dimmer setting, and use a very low-watt bulb.
Alcohol is a double-edged sword, because if you’re used to having a nightcap and you stop, it can cause you to have more vivid dreams. But that side-effect should only last a few days, after which you’ll enjoy much more deeply refreshing sleep. Drinking alcohol before bed can cause vivid dreams and nightmares because it degrades the quality of your sleep and, like caffeine, can cause you to doze rather than sleep deeply – light sleep is the state of sleep when we are most likely to dream.
Prescription medication and other drugs can cause sleep disturbances, including nightmares, but you should never stop taking prescribed medication without consulting your doctor. Ask him or her about adjusting the dose if you think it is causing you problems. You can also speak to your doctor in complete confidence if you have problems with over-the-counter medicines or other drugs.
See A Sleep Specialist
If you are having disturbing recurring dreams night after night, this is a sign of serious stress-related issues, or perhaps an underlying illness. Again, your doctor should be your first point of call, and they may suggest counselling or medication. But also ask about being referred to a sleep specialist if the problem is long-term. Sleep specialists can also help if you are having nightmares where you're 'acting out' the action in your sleep. For most people sleep triggers a sort of paralysis, so that they stay still while they sleep, but for a few individuals, most often during times of great stress, this mechanism goes awry, and they can get up out of bed and start wandering around the house and doing things (or dream they are doing things) while they are fully asleep. This is obviously potentially very dangerous, so if you suffer from this kind of sleep disturbance see your doctor right away and ask for a referral.
Are You A High-Energy, Excitable Person?
Excitement can lead to vivid dreams and nightmares, and some people are naturally very excitable. If you are one of these people, try to burn off your excess energy in productive ways like doing some exercise (but not right before bed, as this can make things worse - leave a gap of two to three hours between exercise and sleep). Completing small satisfying projects can help redirect your energy, and reaching a goal can make you feel relaxed and satisfied, and turn your edgy excitement into a more satisfying contentment.
If you tend to dwell on your problems and fears over and over again, this obsessiveness and the tension it brings could be causing you to have bad dreams. Socialising more can be one way of getting out of this destructive habit, because it will distract your thoughts from ruminating on yourself, and mixing with other people in different settings than your usual haunts will open up your world. Spending time with people in a social (rather than work) environment also reduces stress, and research has shown that people with a good social network tend to feel happier and more content, as well as living longer, healthier and more productive lives.
How to Have More Pleasant Dreams
Finally, I read an article by one of my writer friends about how to let your mind relax and focus on your wishes and hopes before you drift off to sleep, so that your dreaming life will be pleasant instead of stressful. She's a wonderful writer, and I think her ideas might help if you're having troublesome nights, so here's my friend's article (with fantastic pictures too) about identifying your dreams and controlling them.
tamron on June 27, 2012:
Between taking care of momma constant doctors appointments and judgement from family.
I constantly was frustrated and angry and I also felt like a prisoner in my own home.
I wasn't just having nightmares I was living a nightmare.
I did get some counseling but the problem was they came by appointment not really when I needed them to come.
They always seem to show up when I had the chance to have fun.
That made me resent them!
Redberry Sky (author) on June 27, 2012:
Tamron - that's a serious long-term trauma you went through, and your symptoms are really severe. For anything that cuts so deep, you deserve someone to help you get through the enormous stress an experience like this causes - have a word with your doctor and see if s/he can help by referring you to a sleep specialist, or maybe for some CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy). CBT in particular can really help with stress and trauma and all the really bad symptoms they bring about.
tamron on June 27, 2012:
I took care of my mom with Alzheimers. The more needy she became the worse I got. I started having panic attacks,insomnia,and walking in my sleep. I also had this overwhelming fear of dieing.
I think my sleepless nights was due to stress.
Great Hub! Ping Ya
Redberry Sky (author) on June 20, 2012:
Thanks Jeannieinabottle - I hope your night terrors go away, they can cause a real feedback loop of stress.
Jeannie Marie from Baltimore, MD on June 20, 2012:
This is very helpful information. I have night terrors sometimes and I've definitely noticed I have them more when stressed. I will try to eat healthier and eat less midnight snacks now that I know that can contribute to the problem. Thanks for the information! Great hub and voted up!
Redberry Sky (author) on May 25, 2012:
Cheers bac2basics :) and you're absolutely right - sleep research has shown that as we get older not only do we need less sleep, but the sleep we do get is much more likely to be broken and 'lighter'.
Anne from Spain on May 25, 2012:
What a great hub. I am getting older and I think that does affect your sleep too. You are absolutely right about chocolate and caffine keeping you awake. Many´s the night I´ve lain there wide awake knowing it´s my favourite bedtime tipple that´s stopping me getting off to bye bye´s. Voted this up and about everything else too. Going to follow you as well. Thnks for a great hub and sound advice.