If you or someone in your family is suffering from nightmares, going to bed every night can become a source of anxiety and fear, which in and of itself will increase the likelihood of having these bad dreams. This results in a poor quality of sleep, which affects your energy levels, your mood, and in the long run, can have a pronounced negative effect on your overall mental state, so you may be wondering how to get rid of nightmares once and for all.
Pretty much anyone aged 1-100 can have a nightmare, and in singular cases, they’re usually nothing to worry about. However, if you find yourself dreading going to bed in the fear that you’ll have to go through yet another distressing sleeping experience, and are looking for solutions, you’ve come to the right place. In this article, we’ll cover when nightmares can happen, the most common causes of bad dreams in kids and adults, and measures that you can take to avoid having this experience altogether.
When do nightmares happen
There are two types of sleep phases: REM (rapid eye movement) and non-REM (non-rapid eye movement). These two phases alternate as you sleep, with each cycle lasting approximately 90-100 minutes. Most of the dreams you see happen in the REM sleep phase, and this is precisely the stage when you experience nightmares.
What causes nightmares
Children experience nightmares far more frequently than adults. Kids may be less able to process stressful, unfamiliar situations throughout the day, which can cause a sensory overload and result in a nightmare. Even having an overly tiring day can make your child have a bad dream. Children are also more prone to night terrors, which is a kind of nightmare characterized by loud shouting, crying and kicking.
Adults can experience nightmares for the same reasons as kids but are less prone to having them. However, nightmares in adults usually have more serious underlying psychological causes, with anxiety, depression, and PTSD being some of the most common culprits. You may experience a recurring bad dream scenario, with some kind of stressful event played out, and some other common stories include being chased, falling, being in danger, or seeing your teeth fall out. Any individual phobias that you may have also often play a role.
Relax before bed
Trying to sleep when you’re jittery or wound up just won’t do – you’ll end up lying in bed for hours, tossing and turning, which will cause you even more distress. After a stressful day at work, the best thing to do is to find the relaxation techniques that suit you and implement them into your daily routine. This is highly individual, but the following tend to work for pretty much everyone:
Studies have shown that meditation decreases anxiety and stress. Although the findings are not conclusive yet, it’s generally believed that meditating reduces cortisol levels (also known as the “stress” hormone). You don’t have to have any prior meditation experience or abilities: you can find thousands of great guided meditations online, or put on some relaxing music and practice mindfulness. Pay attention to your internal dialogue, psychological and physical sensations. Those that practice meditation regularly say that just being present with yourself and your thoughts can help slow down that inner chatter, and in the long run, they report an excellent quality of sleep and an improvement in their mood.
- Take a relaxing bath or shower
Soaking in some warm water can really help to release any tension in the body, especially in the muscles. Add some essential oils such as lavender, ylang-ylang or neroli, according to your tastes, and switch on some calming music for an even more pronounced effect.
- Herbal tea
Try drinking herbal tea such as chamomile or peppermint in order to relax your nervous system. Also consider consulting with your doctor about any additional supplements that could help you to relax.
- Don’t watch scary movies
This is pretty obvious, but avoid watching any stressful dramas, horror films or TV series that make you feel tense and uncomfortable.
How to avoid nightmares – preventative measures
In order to reduce or completely eliminate the likelihood of nightmares, also take into account the following recommendations:
Upgrade your sleeping area
When your bed is an uncomfortable place to sleep in, the discomfort this causes you can worsen or even be the root cause of nightmares, depending on how much this impacts you individually. Waterbed mattresses have been found to have a positive effect on REM sleep behavior disorder, which usually causes one to act out vivid dreams by yelling, kicking and flailing their arms. These kinds of mattresses are therefore good for those suffering from nightmares as they help you to fall asleep faster and experience a much deeper, more peaceful sleep.
If you have back or shoulder pain, this can also impact your dreams, as your body is under constant stress. Look for the best pillows for back pain or check out models best suited for relieving shoulder pain, depending on the one you need most.
When you find yourself regularly tossing and turning, you’d benefit from a pillow that is designed with combination sleepers in mind, as this will keep your body comfortable all night long, reducing any tension in your muscles, and therefore causing you less physical distress.
Sport and exercise
Avoid sports activities at least 2 hours before bed, and ideally, plan your workout for the first half of the day. Exercising fires up your nervous system and ups the adrenaline levels in your body, which definitely will not help with relaxation and sleep.
On the other hand, if you are not physically active, it would be a good idea to start exercising. Working out releases feel-good hormones and has a beneficial impact on your body’s biochemistry, which results in a more positive mood and therefore happier thoughts (and as well all know, nightmares are scared of happy thoughts!). Consider starting a stretching or yoga practice, as this is fantastic for releasing any tension you may be holding in your body.
Avoid digital devices
Try to limit screen time and put away all phones, laptops, and tablets at least for one hour before bed. Of course, avoiding technology entirely is difficult in today’s modern age, but 40 minutes to an hour should be doable. Firstly, it will allow you to avoid the constant stream of irrelevant notifications and information, which result in a state of heightened alertness. Most of us also have some aspects of our work on our gadgets, so do yourself a favor and stop checking those emails at 11 p.m. Secondly, the blue light that is found in screens depletes melatonin levels, resulting in you feeling tired, but being unable to sleep, which will make you anxious and stressed before bed, as discussed above. Moreover, mobile phones send out radiation that has been shown to interfere with sleep cycles, which further heightens the risk of experiencing a nightmare.
Set a sleeping schedule
Try to going to bed and waking up at the same time each day. This will set your internal clock to having a regular sleeping pattern, which will be beneficial to the quality of your sleep. Don’t “sleep in” on weekends, as this disrupts your sleep cycles and will leave you feeling groggy, tired and irritable, and unable to sleep well at night.
Get rid of sleep paralysis
Research has shown that sleeping on your back is more likely to result in sleep paralysis. Many people report this particular nightmare, which is characterized by feeling alert and awake, but physically unable to move. Those that experience sleep paralysis frequently report sensations of suffocation and as though someone or something is sitting on their chest or pressing down on it. This state is often accompanied by visions of some kind of monstrous presence.
In order to avoid this altogether, try sleeping on your stomach or on your side. A new sleeping position may take some getting used to. However, help is at hand: you’ll find that there are products out there that have been specially designed for different types of sleepers. The perfect mattress topper for side sleepers or a comfy pillow for those that sleep on their stomach will allow you to adjust easily and enjoy sleeping on your side or stomach even more than the method you’re accustomed to!
Get a night light
On the one hand, it would be best to sleep in total darkness, as this contributes to a much better quality of sleep. But if you find yourself waking up in the dark after yet another nightmare and the pitch black surroundings make you feel even more anxious, then a night light would be a good investment.
Cut out alcohol, cigarettes, and caffeine
Let’s be frank: these substances aren’t really that good for your health anyway, and if you’re having nightmares, especially so. Alcohol causes you to have more intense, vivid dreams and nightmares and increases the risk of sleep apnea. Smoking has been shown to have a relation with nightmares, particularly among males. With caffeine in your system, you’re more jittery and anxious, and your body has more trouble getting into “resting” mode, which makes it more difficult to fall asleep and stay asleep throughout the night.
Get in a balanced diet rich in vitamins and minerals. When levels of certain vitamins are depleted, this causes imbalances within the body that lead to various atypical psychological and physiological symptoms. Individuals who experience nightmares often have low levels of vitamin B1 (alcohol and stress are the main culprits behind its depletion). Foods rich in vitamin B1 – also known as Thiamine – include various types of fish, nuts, and seeds.
Minimize external stimuli
If you live in a noisy area or you’re constantly disturbed by noises throughout the night, this can also translate into your bad dreams, as the body responds to any sudden, unexpected noises the same way it does when you experience stressful events when you’re awake. Get some earplugs or play a recording of some white noise that will drown out any other bothersome sounds – try playing ocean or rain recordings, as these are particularly soothing. If it’s your partner’s snoring that disturbs you, invest into a specialized mattress that helps those that snore. Finally, if you’re bothered by your partner waking up and moving around in the night, choose a non-motion transfer mattress – you can find quality, cost-friendly options for under $500 or even less than $3 00, depending on your budget.
Keep a dream journal
Write down your dreams every night and try to analyze the causes behind the scenarios that were played out in them. If you have nightmares, think about the kind of day you had and the things that were bothering you – can you find any connections with your dream? People that keep a dream journal swear by this practice, as it helps them to understand themselves and their dreams a lot better.
If you have long-term psychological concerns, such as anxiety, insomnia, depression or anything else that causes you mental distress, see a doctor. These conditions are often accompanied by disturbed sleep and nightmares, so you need to treat the underlying cause in order to get rid of them. This is especially relevant for those that have PTSD and experience recurring dreams about traumatic experiences. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy has been shown to be an effective method in helping people to get rid of nightmares.
In conclusion, suffering from bad dreams every night is not something that you should have to put up with, in the hopes that these nightmares will go away of their own accord. We’ve covered quite a comprehensive range of tips to avoid, and even fully get rid of, those distressing dreams. Some of the recommendations may seem limiting – you may want to scroll through your Facebook feed before bed as you’re so used to doing, or perhaps you’re a coffee-addict and can’t imagine cutting it out of your daily life. But it’s all a small price to pay for a good night’s sleep – and if you’ve been suffering from nightmares, we think you’ll agree. Moreover, these tips will benefit your overall health, so you’ll feel better, sleep better and be happier!