Nightmares are something that just about everyone has experienced in their life.
They often make us feel scared, even if we can’t remember the content of them. Nightmares happen when you’re sleeping and they can be triggered by stress, anxiety, or lack of sleep.
Nightmares, in most cases, are harmless. But they can become disruptive if they happen too often, or when they are too vivid. Meet my friend Paul, who’s had a couple of rough months because of a recurring nightmare.
Paul lay in his bed, eyes open, staring at the ceiling. His thoughts swirled restlessly around him as he tried to calm down and go back to sleep.
The events of the nightmare played out in his mind—something about being chased by some creature. He couldn’t quite remember what it was, but he knew it had been terrifying and had made him feel suffocated with every step.
He shuddered at the thought of it, eyes darting around his room in the dim light as he tried to decide if things were different now that he was awake or not.
Paul knew logically there wasn’t any danger nearby, and yet he couldn’t shake off this feeling.
Paul lost many nights of sleep because of this nightmare. But then he learned about the techniques in this article and went back to sleeping like a baby.
Does this story sound familiar? Paul is not alone. Millions of people face the same dreadful experience every night. But it doesn’t have to be this way.
In this article, you’ll learn everything you need to know about what nightmares mean and how to go back to sleep after one.
How to Go Back to Sleep After a Nightmare
Going back to sleep after a nightmare is hard, because our brain will be in fight or flight mode. It is imperative you keep your mind busy with other thoughts, because otherwise it will keep mulling over the dream.
You don’t have to do anything groundbreaking to get your mind off. What matters is that you don’t just lie in bed and do nothing about the situation, because that’ll make things worse.
Here are 3 ideas you can implement today to drastically improve your chances of falling asleep after a dream.
1. Practice Deep Breathing
Focused breathing relaxes your muscles and get oxygen flowing through your body again. Breathing is often the only thing we can control when we’re panicking, which makes it an easy way of taking back control. This will help give your mind something else to focus on rather than the bad dream or anxious thoughts that were keeping you awake before.
There are tens of different breathing techniques out there, and most of them will work great. Personally, I recommend diaphragmatic breathing as it’s very easy to do while lying down in bed.
2. Distract Yourself With Other Activities
It’s imperative you let your mind relax after the stress caused by the nightmare. You can’t just stop thinking about the nightmare, but you can do something that will make you think about other things.
Walking does wonders for our mind, but it might not be workable if it’s dark outside. Reading a book is the next best thing to let your mind wander and stop thinking about the nightmare you were having.
3. Write What Happened in the Nightmare but Change the Ending
This is a technique called image rehearsal therapy (IRT), and it’s especially useful for recurring nightmares. If a specific bad dream is haunting you, writing it down but changing it to a happy ending will strip it of its power.
Once you’ve written the story with the new ending, read it before bed. Do it until you feel you’ve overcome the nightmare. You’ll notice you’ll gradually stop experiencing it.
Editor’s note: This method taps into the power of stories on our brain, and it’s extremely powerful. You can use it in other areas of your life too if you wish. You’ll be surprised at the positive effects you’ll notice.
The Causes of Nightmares
There are several causes of nightmares. Some are psychological, others are physical. If you’re experiencing lots of nightmares, try to look at the root of the issue. Here’s a list of potential causes of nightmares:
When you’re under high levels of stress, it can cause your body to produce hormones that don’t allow for deep sleep. This can cause nightmares or have you waking up repeatedly during the night.
When thinking about factors that cause nightmares, it’s important to note that the mind is an incredibly powerful thing in how the body operates and what hormones are produced. Whatever we think about is going to have some sort of impact on us as we are asleep.
A common nightmare cause is lurking anxiety. Your thoughts may focus on some terrifying event, but not really being able to understand what it might mean.
This may sound like a strange way of causing nightmares, but it’s important for understanding their meaning and how to go back to sleep after one.
- Lack of Sleep
When you’re not getting enough rest, it can cause your body and mind to be stressed out more than they would otherwise be. This leads to oversensitivity in the brain or an overactive imagination that cannot relax because you are fatigued from lack of sleep.
Creating a sleep routine is the best way to prompt our body to sleep. The technique is called “sleep hygiene”. Sleep hygiene is the practice of having regular sleep and wake times, following a set bedtime routine, and avoid stimulating activities before bedtime.
The four parts of sleep hygiene are: creating a bedtime routine, maintaining an optimal bedroom temperature, minimizing blue light exposure one hour before bed time, and maintaining a healthy diet.
Drinking alcohol before you go to bed can make it harder for your body and mind to get a restful sleep. The result is that sometimes, dreams will be more vivid and nightmares may occur because of the inability for your brain to shut down properly during this time.
If you’ve had a lot of alcohol and are about to go to bed, the best you could do is drink plenty of water before going to sleep. Hangovers are basically next-day dehydrations, so drinking a lot of water will counteract the alcohol’s destructive effects on our body.
Editor’s note: Alcohol causes dehydration, which is another cause of nightmares. It’s also very sugary, which doesn’t help at all.
- Nocturnal eating
Nocturnal eating refers to consuming food or drinking liquids before going to bed at night or during the night while sleeping (even though there’s not much research on this topic). It’s important that people eat nothing within 2 hours before they plan ongoing to sleep because it could lead to having nightmares.
As outlined here, eating food right before bed can cause your mind to recall disturbing dreams.
The harder for our body to digest, the more likely for the food to cause nightmares. Digesting is one of the activities that requires the most energy in our body, interfering with our sleep, where we want to conserve energy.
Foods to avoid before bed include spicy and sugary ones. Avoid food rich in carbs like pasta and rice too. And of course, alcohol, for which we reserved the previous section.
Dehydration can lead to nightmares because when our bodies don’t get enough water, they produce more stress hormones which disrupt sleep patterns and lead to vivid dreams or nightmares; this happens because dehydration affects how much your brain sleeps by affecting its ability for REM cycles.
If you’re thirsty before bed, drink a glass of water.
- Sleep paralysis
Sleep paralysis is when a person becomes aware during (or just before) the REM cycle of sleep. This often leads to people feeling like they are awake in their body, but unable to move or speak and then experiencing hallucinations due to lack of sleep.
To avoid nightmares that may come from this, it’s important for people to avoid alcohol and excessive caffeine intake before bed.
The Meaning of Nightmares
Nightmares are dreams that can be frightening to the person experiencing them. They often include things like being chased, falling from great heights, getting trapped in a situation with no way out, and some other pretty scary stuff.
Nightmares have been shown to be a reaction of the amygdala (i.e., our emotional center) and it has been showed that people with PTSD have more frequent nightmares than those without, which may help explain why they occur for some people but not others.
So, what do nightmares mean?
Nightmares are generally made up of deep-seated fears or anxieties that we have in our life. When you are asleep, the part of your brain that processes logic and reason is offline so it can’t regulate these feelings or thoughts as much (or at all) which causes them to be more vivid when they happen.
Having the occasional nightmare isn’t an issue. But when the nightmares happen so often you can’t ever feel rested, it’s time to step up and fix the issue. There are many potential causes of nightmares, but most of them can be traced back to either psychological issues, or poor attention to sleep hygiene.
If the problem persists after putting into practice the techniques outlined in this article, you should consult a therapist. Or at least confess your nightmares to someone you trust. Sometimes, just talking about our nightmares with someone else lets us realize how ridiculous they are.
Realizing they are just bad dreams, and that they can’t hurt you is your best weapon against them.